by That Shelf Staff | December 17, 2019, 10:30 am
The period between Terrence Malick’s triumphant return to cinema with 1998’s The Thin Red Line and more recent, less heralded output like Knight of Cups and Song to Song was capped by what is arguably the reclusive filmmaker’s grand opus: 2011’s The Tree of Life.
The film marked a transition of sorts for Malick. Following this film lay a series of movies that play more as grueling-but-gorgeous formal experiments than coherent narratives (a trend only recently broken with 2019’s A Hidden Life). The Tree of Life stood at a crossroads between his early films and the path he’d soon go down, existing as a distillation of the heady themes and deep quandaries that have echoed throughout his work and his most captivating stylistic tendencies. It’s a film that washes over the viewer, one that is almost certain to move you on a very basic human level if you give it your time and attention. Brad Pitt stars as an archetypal father figure, and he’s joined by Jessica Chastain in a star-making turn as a paragon of motherhood, and Sean Penn as their grown-up son. The film is ostensibly about growing up in suburban 1950s Texas and reflecting back on childhood, but as with most of Malick’s movies the story is undergirded by larger thematic elements, touching upon birth, death, life, the universe and everything in it.
TheTree of Life hits the extraordinary heights it does in large part thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s intimate and enthralling cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s ever present score, and Douglas Trumbull’s stunning visual effects sequences. The only question at this point is: Which version should you watch first? Do you choose Malick’s original 2011 theatrical version (which clocked in at 135 minutes), or the alternate version produced for the 2019 Criterion release (a new edit that comes in at a whopping 188 minutes)? Both versions would almost certainly make the cut as major works from this decade. (WP)