I’d like to begin by lamenting that I missed this film when it was in the theaters. A poor decision, as it turned out. The cinematography is stunning. I can only imagine what its like to see it in a first-class digital theatre.
Likwise the art direction. The narrative parts of the story put you back into growing up in the barefoot 50’s, with aluminum tumblers, dark wood floors, less-than-perfect grass (think back…did you call it a lawn then?), and playing cards in the spokes. His interiors are pitch-perfect, with the furniture we all recall from our childhood. The lighting evokes an Edward Hopper painting.
I’m trying to imagine how Terrence Malick even conceived of this film. The centerpiece narrative isn’t that unusual. Brad Pit and Jessica Chastain reflect parenthood in the time, and the struggles they endure are fairly typical. But the surrounding visuals depicting both space and time are reminiscent of the odd sidebars in 2001: A Space Oddessey. But in a good way: I have no idea what they were meant to represent, but without them the context sought would have been missing.
Emotionally the film grabs you by the collar and smashes your face to the concrete in the first ten minutes. A tragedy befalls the main characters so soon in the film that we are still unfamiliar with who they are, and yet the event had me blubbering like a little girl when it happened. Spiraling down from there, it soon takes you on a soaring esoteric visual trip that astounds the spirit and helps you forget what just happened in the storyline. This happens again and again throughout.
The basic story chronicles a family of three boys, with the oldest Jack, struggling to deal with his relationship with his father. Sean Penn appears occasionally as the adult Jack, still struggling with his memory of that time. Birth, death, and all in between is Malick’s canvas. Even an afterlife.
Quoting A.O. Scott from the NY TImes:
There are very few films I can think of that convey the changing interior weather of a child’s mind with such fidelity and sensitivity. Nor are there many that penetrate so deeply into the currents of feeling that bind and separate the members of a family. So much is conveyed — about the tension and tenderness within the O’Brien marriage, about the frustrations that dent their happiness, about the volatility of the bonds between siblings — but without any of the usual architecture of dramatic exposition. One shot flows into another, whispered voice-over displaces dialogue, and an almost perfect domestic narrative takes shape, anchored in three extraordinarily graceful performances: Mr. Pitt, Ms. Chastain and, above all, Hunter McCracken, a first-timer who brings us inside young Jack’s restless, itching skin.
What did it all mean? I have no idea, and yet it is very clear to me. So much so that I’m going to watch it again right now. And pray that after the Oscars it comes back into the theaters so I can experience it the way it was intended.