If a good movie does not play at your local Cineplex but instead shows up at either the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks or the Browning Cinema at Notre Dame, you can make a couple of assumptions. First, the movie is not going to make much money, and it will not be a film for everyone.
That being said, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is, in my view, the best movie I have seen this year and possibly the best American film since There Will Be Blood. It is also a movie that you can think about and discuss with your friends and probably never come up with a general conclusion on what it means.
Malick, a genuine Hollywood recluse, has only made five feature films in his career including The Tree of Life. Of the previous four, Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line are among the personal classics I have in my DVD collection.
As a prelude to seeing The Tree of Life I watched The Thin Red Line again last week. Based, somewhat loosely, on the great James Jones novel about the battle of Guadalcanal, it is one of the best war movies ever made. And the only connection between The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life is Sean Penn. In both films he is unlike the Sean Penn you see elsewhere. But in a Malick film you have no choice but to be different because the director is not big on dialogue, instead relying on voice-overs that play a secondary role to the incredible cinema photography. Malick uses light, sound and nature unlike anyone else.
I was so taken aback by this movie that I went on line as soon as I got home and, of course, it was Roger Ebert who seemed to get it better than anyone else. As I sat in the theatre two things struck me above all else. There is a lengthy scene about a quarter of the way in that is surreal and seemingly (but not really) has nothing to do with the plot.
2001, a Space Odyssey, I told my wife. Seriously.
A complete contrast to that scene is one later on where the two sons of the Pitt character are out playing with their pals. While the film is set in Waco it could have been any smaller town in the vast middle of America in the 1950s. Ebert said he saw himself. I saw myself and many of you may see yourself.
When the film ended there was applause in the theatre but the gentleman sitting next to me said he wouldn’t applaud unless he got his money back.
The really great movies make us think, for better or worse.
I write this a little more than 24 hours after I saw Tree of Life and I can’t get it out of my mind and I probably won’t for a long time, or until I see it again and again.