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The Films of Terrence Malick

Badlands

Days of Heaven

The Thin Red Line

The New World

The Tree of Life (June 3/11)

Filmmaker Terrence Malick's most experimental feature to date, The Tree of Life explores the creation of the universe and how it ties into one family's existence in the 1950s. There's little doubt that The Tree of Life fares best in its opening half hour, as Malick, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, kicks off the proceedings with a series of impressionistic scenes detailing the exploits of characters from different time periods. It eventually becomes clear that Malick's focus is a man (Brad Pitt) and a woman (Jessica Chastain) learning of the death of their child, and it's rather remarkable to note that such moments come off as surprisingly heartwrenching - as Malick offers little in the way of character development or expository dialogue. The strength of these scenes ensures that the narrative-free, character-free stretch that follows, in which Malick essentially documents the universe's beginnings, is actually far more engrossing than one might've anticipated, with the bizarre yet compelling vibe heightened by the breathtaking, Koyaanisqatsi-like nature of Malick's visual (and aural) directorial choices. It's only as the movie segues into its 1950s-set midsection that the viewer's interest begins to wane, as Malick offers up a decidedly uneventful domestic drama that is, by and large, focused on the increasingly antagonistic relationship between Pitt's character and his oldest son (Hunter McCracken's Jack). The freewheeling, lackadaisical atmosphere is perpetuated by Malick's ongoing emphasis on seemingly inconsequential tangents and asides, and although some of this stuff is admittedly quite enthralling, it ultimately does seem clear that this stretch could've used a few more passes through the editing bay. By the time the striking yet baffling finale - which features the film's various characters converging on a celestial (?) beach - rolls around, The Tree of Life has certainly established itself as a singular bit of avant-garde filmmaking that ultimately makes up in captivating visuals and pervasive mood what it lacks in context and exposition. (And it goes without saying that the film practically demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible.)

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© David Nusair