POSTED ON JUNE 29, 2011:
Tree of Life and Incendies are challenging movies worth climbing
There aren't that many cinematic poets walking around out there anymore -- they were always a rare breed to begin with. But Waco-born and Bartlesville-raised auteur, Terrance Malick, is one of them.
With a filmography spanning forty years and with yet a mere five films under his directorial belt, the Rhodes scholar, MIT professor of philosophy and occasional filmmaker took a twenty year hiatus from directing between his masterpieces, the sweeping 1978 drama, Days of Heaven, and 1998's searing, star-studded, metaphysical, World War II epic The Thin Red Line. It was during that break that the seed for what has become his latest film, The Tree of Life, was first planted. The man, like nature, takes his time.
And the depth of that time, not just in its making, but in the essence of Malick's vision of love, spirituality, humanity and the universe render The Tree of Life into a visually arresting, deeply deliberated work of undiluted art.
There is barely a narrative and no real plotting in the conventional sense. Opening with a quote from the Book of Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?", The Tree of Life paints an impressionistic portrait of a family in Waco, Texas during the 1950s. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt, filling a role originally, perhaps ironically, cast with Heath Ledger) is the stern but loving father of three sons with his wife (Jessica Chastain), who both learn of the death of their second-born, at age nineteen, presumably during the Korean War. The news is devastating, searing the family with grief, particularly Mr. O'Brien, an engineer who comes to regret how his exacting nature colored his relationship with his lost son.
Their eldest, Jack (portrayed as a boy by Hunter McCracken and as an adult by Sean Penn) bears the brunt of his father's uncompromising world view, an effort to instill self-reliance in his children that stems from O'Brien's regret of never following his heart to become a classical musician. Forced into an unsatisfying job to make ends meet, and toting a notebook of patented designs he can't seem to sell, O'Brien wants nothing more than for Jack to believe he can achieve whatever he desires in his own life.
The 21st-century Jack, now an architect, has never truly gotten over the death of his brother; mooring him in an existential malaise amongst the cold, nearly dystopian surroundings of his metropolitan workplace (mirroring his father's own dissatisfaction with his vocation). Jack's longing for a more innocent time is tempered by the remorse of its passing.
If you're looking for a forgettable, digestible bit of summer fun at the theater (and it's amazing that this is a summer release), The Tree of Life is not your movie. If you are looking for an awe-inspiring, visually-stunning, enigmatically-moving (and a few other hyphenated adorations) work of pure cinema then step right up because what Malick has crafted here is nothing short of a profoundly emotional and strikingly beautiful work of near genius -- with a bit of the pretension that comes along with that kind of filmic grandeur.
Utilizing a timeline that spans from the birth of known reality to Jack's ascension of Heaven (I think), Malick effortlessly paints poignant emotion into every languidly fluid, expertly framed and edited composition, shot by the venerable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men). Be it the joyously halcyon reminisces of Eisenhower-era naiveté (brought to life by the excellent production design of Jack Fisk) or the wonderment of special FX legend Douglas Trumbull's audacious execution of the birth of the universe during a sequence which maps the expanse of time from the formation of matter to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, The Tree of Life is nothing if not gorgeous to look at. If some of the abstract and utterly elegant FX work by Trumbull (who eschews CG for a combination of fluid dynamics, experimental lighting and high speed photography) causes some "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" flashbacks it's because Malick's old friend was responsible for the pioneering FX work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, this is what "epic" means.
Malick combines this visual mastery and his mournfully distant yet affirming tone (one far warmer than his closest analog, Stanley Kubrick, could ever muster) into a considered contemplation on the singular beauty of humanity, love, family and spiritualism set against the vastness of the universe and the chilling impassiveness of eternity. Kind of like Darren Aronofsky's criminally under seen, The Fountain with less romance. Malick indulges in more opaque and trippy ruminations on our human condition which feed the magnificence of The Tree of Life. It is not meant to be seen lightly -- or even just once.
Commenting on the performances almost seems superfluous, considering the masterwork they are set in like gemstones embedded in a Caravaggio, though they are uniformly wonderful. Pitt inhabits O'Brien, finding the balance in a difficult character -- one who is admirable yet rigidly misguided by his own failures.
Hunter McCracken brings a somberly thoughtful portrayal to Young Jack, while Penn reflects that character with his trademark disillusionment. Amongst a fine cast directed by a skilled auteur who knows exactly what he wants, no one from Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien to Tye Sheridan as her youngest son, Steve, falls short.
It's got a non-conventional, experimental structure, an abstract narrative and deigns to break your heart with splendor and mend it all at once. The Tree of Life, like much of Malick's oeuvre, isn't for everybody. And for that -- in a summer chock full of inconsequential artifice -- I am thankful.
Time-jumping ruminations on the significance of history, faith and family don't just come in one form, though the faith and family part may be different. The fruitless regret of those mortal coils transcends the modes in which their haunting ramifications can be imparted. So it is with Incendies ("Scorched") Denis Villeneuve's adeptly directed, remarkably constructed, Oscar-nominated adaptation of the Canadian-born, Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad's namesake stage play.
Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and her fraternal twin brother, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) come to the office of their mother's employer, an estate notary, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) for whom she worked for 18 years. Their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) has died and her children are there to hear her final will and testament. She has some posthumous requests.
Told that she intends to be buried sacrilegiously and unmarked unless they return to Lebanon to find their father and long lost half-brother, Nawal's children react differently. Jeanne immediately wants to fulfill her mother's last wishes -- which include bearing two letters for her unmet father and half-brother -- while Simon, disaffected by what he's seen as his mother's eccentric emotional distance, would rather just bury her the way he likes and be done with it.
Jeanne, a coolly mathematical yet unfulfilled girl, leaves her recalcitrant brother behind for her ancestral homeland -- long after the 1970s Lebanese Civil War that defined the mother she never really knew. Simon, wanting nothing more than his sister's safe return, bends to Notary Jean's will and goes to Lebanon, where the clues Jeanne has uncovered about their mother's untold life lead them down a rabbit hole of revelation that irreparably changes them both.
And what Denis Villeneuve's adaption of Incendies captures, in terms of its haunting scope with a Pulp Fiction-esque predilection for skillfully placed, non-linear chapter stops is nothing short of powerful, cinematic story telling.
A perfect amalgam of narrative mystery and a writer/director who can deliberately peel back its layers with fine precision, Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom) unveils a clockwork tale which delves into the brutally pragmatic horrors of war with a matter-of-fact depth that blurs the complexities of the conflict in order to bring contrast to the sincere, beating heart at its core. You don't need to major in Lebanese history to get the larger historical and geo-political events going on around Nawal. In fact, that ignorance adds to Incendies poignancy.
That contrast, between the era of Jeanne and Simon in a free Lebanon, who find their mother's name (and so theirs) held in contempt by some while canonized by others, gives profundity to the history of Nawal's life -- one which found her guided by idealism that eventually metastasized into extremism and the violently personal consequences of that transformation.
Villeneuve's photographic compositions, under the talents of André Turpin's wonderfully immediate cinematography, render the proceedings with stark beauty, often imparting the scenic expansiveness of a Sergio Leone Western as Jeanne (or her mother years before her) wanders between pockets of dilapidated (or destroyed) Arab society looking for lost kin and finding only tidbits and rumors that cannot satiate their need for closure. Though that closure, perhaps predictably, brings only cold solace.
All of which makes Incendies' Radiohead-laden soundtrack quite fitting.
Lubna Azabal stands out as Nawal Marwan. One scene alone, that finds her concealing her Christianity to hop on a Muslim-only bus, only to find herself a near victim of a Christian militia bent on revenge is one of the tautest moments in a film this year. Its culmination is not only ruthless but perfectly informs her character. Azabal plays it all with genuine depth.
Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, as Jeanne Marwan, mirrors that performance though I never got the sense that her character had as defined an arc. As with her brother Simon, they are catalysts for the mystery of their mother's life and it isn't until the film's climactic emotional uppercut that their roles in her story achieve their tragic fruition.
Incendies isn't really warm and fuzzy, but it is unaffectedly familial, deeply compelling and expertly crafted.
It's been a good week for that sort of thing.
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