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The Independent Critic

Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Terrence Malick
Rated PG-13
138 Mins.
Fox Searchlight

 "The Tree of Life" Review 
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There is something to be admired about a filmmaker who refuses to bend and sway with the finicky interests and whims of an audience.

These filmmakers, and there are few of them working in Hollywood, should be admired, embraced and even celebrated.

Their rewards are often slight at best... occasionally an Academy Award, an Independent Spirit Award, literary praise from one of the few critics who has yet to sell out or, perhaps, a treasured run through the arthouse theatrical circuit.

Terrence Malick is, perhaps, an acquired taste. For some, he's a mad and daring and innovative cinematic genius. For others, he's a pretentious bore whose self-indulgence sabotages nearly every film he touches.

Malick's latest film, The Tree of Life, is self-indulgence if by self-indulgent you mean creating a film that reflects how it is believed the filmmaker thinks, feels, explores, renews, searches and grasps for meaning and light and art and life and love.

The truth is that very few know with absolute certainty if The Tree of Life is really a reflection of Malick, because Malick himself very seldom gives interviews and almost never participates in the marketing of his films. Malick is a filmmaker. Malick makes films.

Malick really makes films.

I am not a Malick devotee and, in particular, found his last film, The New World, absolutely dreadful. I do, however, respect Malick because even when he fails he fails with such artistic magnificence that you leave the theater going "Wow, I really f***in' hated that...But wow."

There are moments in The Tree of Life, which recently won the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, that can only be defined as transcendent filmmaking. There are moments, especially in the film's opening scenes, where Malick's self-indulgent visionary tendencies get the best of him. Be patient. I assure you that the film that follows these opening scenes, IF they bore or irritate you, is easily worth wading through Malick's occasional fits of self-indulgence.

The Tree of Life is a film unlike that which is usually seen in American cinema, yet it further cements Malick's longstanding reputation as one of America's finest filmmakers.

The Tree of Life follows the life journey of Jack (played by Sean Penn as an adult), who is seen through the innocence of childhood and in the midst of his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father. Seeking answers to what amounts to the fundamental questions of life, Jack questions faith yet lives a life that very much exudes it. If ever a film has intelligently explored questions of faith, life, enternity and hope, it would be The Tree of Life, which benefits greatly from Malick's provocative imagery and artistic conviction.

The world would be a better place if more filmmakers had the conviction to make a film with such authenticity and honesty as does Malick with The Tree of Life, only Malick's fifth film in a career spanning 38 years.

I've seldom, almost never, witnessed a film that so managed to intertwine the sacred and the secular with such captivating and unforgettable results. The Tree of Life is not a film about God or faith or life or love or humanity or even just Jack, but The Tree of Life is about all of these things and how they are irrevocably intertwined and we can either spend our entire existence fighting against it or surrendering to it.

Amidst the artistry of The Tree of Life, Malick manages to plant magnificent performances from his leading trio including Penn as the searching middle-aged Jack, a man who seemingly lives searching within a shadow of doubt and desperation. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are simple yet extraordinary in their portrayals of Jack's parents during his younger years, performances that are so natural and heartfelt that they don't really even feel like performances as much as they feel like moments of truth both intimate and universal. Newcomer Hunter McCracken, as younger Jack, may very well give the best performance of all by embodying the young boy whose enthusiasm and spirit and innocence and wonder are sort of shapeshifted by the world that surrounds him.

D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki's photography is nothing short of sublime, perfectly companioning Malick's words and story and somehow seeming to exist as a story all its own. The same could well be said for Jack Fisk's hypnotic and enveloping production design, while Alexandre Desplat's original music captures wondrously both the intimacy and the epic nature of The Tree of Life.

There is no question that The Tree of Life is destined to be one of this writer's favorite films of the year, not so much because of how much I enjoyed it but because of how much it impacted by mind, body and soul. It is the rare film that infiltrates your thoughts long after the closing credits, and it is even more rare when a film gives you chills days after you've watched it unfold. While it is possible, almost inevitable, that Malick's moments of self-indulgence will be questioned and challenged, if self-indulgence is the price we must pay for a work of such beauty and grace then it is a price worth being paid. The Tree of Life may not be the best film of 2011, but it will most certainly be one of the most unforgettable.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic