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'Tree of Life' walks line between profound, pretentious

Friday - 2/10/2012, 11:20am  ET

Climbing "The Tree of Life"

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley examines Malick's vision

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Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON - I never thought a film could rival the mind-blowing reach of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Then up sprouted "The Tree of Life."

Writer/director Terrence Malick ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven") contemplates broad themes of life, death and spirituality by intercutting three threads: (a) the family story of a suburban father (Brad Pitt), graceful wife (Jessica Chastain) and problem child (Hunter McCracken); (b) the grief and regret of that son in his corporate adulthood (Sean Penn); and (c) the creation of the universe and the afterlife.

The film is far from accessible -- and purposely so. Malick challenges the very notion of a plot, main characters, even time -- with a 20-minute stretch of cosmic explosions and sea creatures evolving into dinosaurs. As Jon Stewart posed to Pitt on "The Daily Show," "We can talk about 'Moneyball' and not 'Tree of Life,' because I don't know what that was about. I've seen it now five times."

And yet, it's one of the few transcendent moments I've had at the movies. I found myself tearing up at the powerful shots of life's tiny moments -- porch lights, firecrackers, baby steps. The film tapped into something primal for me, perhaps my own childhood nostalgia; perhaps the collective subconscious of all humanity. I wasn't following a storyline; I was having an experience.

Malick beautifully marries film language to theme, with his camera constantly tilting upward to remind us that we humans are but small pieces in a much larger picture. Such cinesthetic techniques envoke the grand scope of his tone, borrowing not only Kubrick's shot of planetary alignment, but also his habit of forsaking narrative to grapple with life's meaning.

"The Tree of Life" is not a film you rent on a Friday night; it's the type you leave behind after the apocalypse to describe the experience of the human race. No doubt many will hate it, like the two guys I saw coming out of the theater, saying, "That's what you call 'art for art's sake.'" Their gripe got me thinking: the gap between the profound and the pretentious may be the thinnest of all red lines.

"Nothing is so terrible as a pretentious movie," Francis Ford Coppola once said. "A movie that aspires for something really terrific and doesn't pull it off is ... scum, and everyone will walk on it as such. ... So here you are on the one hand, trying to aspire to really do something; on the other hand, you're not allowed to be pretentious.

"Why don't you say [screw] it, I don't care if I'm pretentious or not pretentious ... all I know is that I'm gonna see this movie, and that for me it has to have some kind of answers ... answers on about 47 different levels. It's very hard to talk about these things without sounding corny. [If] you use a word like 'self-purgation' or 'epiphany,' they think you're either some kind of religious weirdo or [jerk] college professor, but those are the words for the process, this transmutation, this renaissance, this rebirth, which is the basis of all life."

Coppola walked the "thin line" better than anyone in "The Godfather" movies, creating riveting pop culture entertainment on the surface with layers of complex meaning underneath. This is what makes directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, Wilder, Ford, Kurosawa and Scorsese so fascinating.

Malick couldn't care less about toeing that line. He skips appeasing the accessible and dives straight into the profound. When you do this, you better nail it, and I'm not so sure "The Tree of Life" hits what it's going for. Still, I admire its ambition, its vision and unrivaled lyrical beauty. With more viewings, I may just call it a masterpiece. For now, I'll take solace in knowing that, if nothing else, the casting of Pitt and Penn will introduce more mainstream viewers to one of the key figures in maverick filmmaking.

"The Tree of Life" has already won cinema's top art prize, the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and is now up for three Oscars: Best Picture, Director and Cinematography. After Malick's nomination for "The Thin Red Line" (1998), could this be the year he finally takes Best Director gold?

The public gives it a 7.1 on IMDB. The critics give it an 84 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Calling it from both sides of The Film Spectrum, I'm giving "The Tree of Life" 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to the Oscars: Join us for an in-depth look at all nine Best Picture nominees every Wednesday and Friday until the Academy Awards on February 26th.

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)