Absolute Beginnings: Sean Penn's Dazed Look Fits This Long View of 1950s America

By Gilbey, Ryan | New Statesman (1996), July 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

Absolute Beginnings: Sean Penn's Dazed Look Fits This Long View of 1950s America


Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)


The Tree of Life (12A)

dir. Terrence Malick

Another decade, another Terrence Malick film. With The Tree of Life coming only six years after The New World, which was separated from The Thin Red Line by seven, this former recluse is in danger of being as dependable as underpowered clockwork, as industrious as a production line manned by snails.

Though some of the grammar of the new picture will be familiar from his past work, such as the voice-over slipping from one actor to another with the fluidity of water passing along a riverbed, The Tree of Life represents a departure for a director already estranged from the usual forms of storytelling in American cinema. As befits a tale told partly from the perspective of a businessman, Jack (Sean Penn), musing silently on his childhood in 1950s Texas, The Tree of Life is structured as a flurry of memories. Some are intangible and sensory; others correspond to that folksy America (kids imitating the town drunk, or frolicking in the smoky residue of a pest-control truck) which formed the backdrop to Badlands (1973).

What is immediately striking is how little there is in the way of actual scenes; most are foreshortened or distilled - a court case, for example, is reduced to shots of the jury's vacated chairs and a lawyer's comforting hand. Even by Malick's elliptical standards, it is remarkable how fully The Tree of Life is liberated from the rudiments of story construction (cause and effect, pace, suspense). The film's commonest currency is imagery that drifts free from narrative context, such as when the infant Jack is whisked away in the arms of his mother Qessica Chastain) while a man suffers a fit, or montages that convey mood alone, such as the elation of Jack and his brothers when their goading father (BradPitt) is away on business.

The danger in stringing together daisy-chains of handsome imagery (luminously photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki) is that you have entered an arena corrupted by advertising. The crucial difference is that meaning is revealed only gradually in Malick's film. One low-angle shot suggests little on its own, but the repeated positioning of the camera at knee level, tilting upwards, makes even the tiniest children in the film as ennobled and imposing as Easter Island statues. …

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Absolute Beginnings: Sean Penn's Dazed Look Fits This Long View of 1950s America
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