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First footage of Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' exceeds expectations [images]

December 2, 2010 |  7:43 pm

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Terrence Malick fans, there's truth to the hype.

We got an early look at the trailer for "The Tree of Life" today, and many of the things film fans have been wondering about regarding the mysterious movie these past several years were answered.

Well, "answered" is a dicey term, since the whole point of the trailer -- and, possibly, the movie -- is not to provide many clear-cut answers at all. But at least judging by the small amount of footage we saw today, Malick -- the enigmatic and meticulous director behind "Badlands," "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line" -- has created a mystical, rich and satisfying film. There's a distinct visual look, and a grand scope, and even of a sense of narrative (sort of).  What's hinted at here is a big-canvas movie in the best sense, one with both cosmic significance and intimate drama. (You'll be able to judge for yourself when the trailer plays with "Black Swan" this weekend. The movie, incidentally, comes out May 27.)

It's never easy to summarize a trailer that the reader can't watch (for a little guidance, here are two new images, the Pitt one above and Penn below), but here goes.

The piece begins with several mystical shots of smoke and fire before diving into the birth of young Jack O'Brien. "He'll be grown before that tree is tall," his mother, Jessica Chastain's Mrs. O'Brien, says. And indeed, we soon track a boy playing with bubbles, roughhousing with his brothers and engaging in other boyhood activities in a Mayberry-esque town circa the 1950s.

Mrs. O'Brien has a binary view of the world. "There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace," she tells her boy. "You'll have to choose which one you'll follow." But Jack's father (a convincingly severe-looking Brad Pitt) is a domineering sort who, over the objections of his wife, is constantly telling his son things like "Always be strong, always be your own man." (In an interior monologue Jack can be heard volleying back and forth, "Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me.")

A little more than halfway into the trailer we see the first cut of a troubled  grown-up Jack (Sean Penn), which is pretty much when the trailer takes a turn into an  epic, unnamed crisis. Jack is going through something tough, and while we don't know what it is, we see him dealing with it, seemingly alone, against stark and painterly backdrops  (reminiscent in several instances of what Julian Schnabel did with "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly").

Interpolated into the trailer are all kinds of this sort of visual poetry --  shots of vast landscapes and religious half-light and spinning planets, along with one very weird shot of what could be a lunar (but is more likely a prehistoric) dark landscape. (No dinosaurs, though, at least not here.) Earth's basic elements are also a motif: cascading water, leaping flames, etc. And then there's the trailer's best shot: a square-on look at the bottom of a baby's foot that signals Jack's arrival into the world.

Much of it plays above the swelling strains of the Smetana's "The Moldau" (or "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem derived from it), which lends even the ordinary coming-of-age moments a sense of import, if also a bit of schmaltz.

The trailer runs on two tracks: Jack's coming-of-age and subsequent crisis; and the grand, seemingly unrelated visual elements. But while the juxtaposition is odd, it's never jarring.

The knock on the trailer, and it wouldn't be entirely misplaced,will probably be that it sometimes feels a little portentous -- we don't really know what crucible the grown-up Jack faces, so when his mother can be heard in a voice-over saying things like "Without love, life flashes by" while the music crescendos, it's a little unclear what the to-do is about. Still, a good trailer satisfies and piques in equal measure, and that's pretty much what you'll feel upon finishing this one: a sense of excitement about what Malick has just shown you and a sense of curiosity about what lies behind it.

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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Photos: Brad Pitt, top, and Sean Penn in 'The Tree of Life.' Credit: Fox Searchlight

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From a black swan, a tree grows

 Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' will bloom in spring

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Comments () | Archives (16)

The comments to this entry are closed.

I love Sean Penn but i just can't take brad Pitt serious. It's almost like trying To take Justin timberlake as a serious actor. this movie already seems over hyped.

This film sounds wonderful. 2 great actors, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and a master director. I will be there the first day.

Sunny, I think you should try to see more Brad Pitt films - Fight Club, 12 Monkeys, Snatch, and pretty much all his latest films. He's become better as his looks become more weathered. Or maybe it's because he doesn't need to take those pretty boy roles anymore.

Sunny, how can you compare Brad Pitt to JT? Are you out of your mind? WTF?
Even tho I don't see Pitt as a brilliant actor I believe that you can't compare his acting skills to n'sync dude's.

I'll wait for the video. I'm not crazy about either actors. They're both humanitarians but I am driven to the movies to see them.

Too bad Sean Penn is in this movie. I can't stand this Chavez, Castro loving communist. He should be ashamed of himself for aligning himself with these dictators.

Sunny is a Jennifer Aniston Fans..

Sunny obviously didn't see The Social Network because JT constantly impressed in that movie. Get over yourself.

Given its release date I would expect to see "The Tree of Life" at Cannes next year. Based on this post, we'll have something to look forward to.

Wow, lots of inane comments and still no-one has stated the obvious yet. Unbelievable

The best shot is that lunar or alien landscape with the moonlight (?) rising over it. Or maybe the best shot is that spiral of glass windows. Or the boy climbing over the pews. Or the waterfall.

What is the music after the one minute mark? Is that from Desplat's score?

I think Brad Pitt is totally underrated as an actor! He has improved so much. Benjamin Button - great!

@ Immature the music is a piece titled "Die moldau" by composer Bedrich Smetena a favorite hope is yours too!

Obviously accuracy is not a priority to you author. You misquoted the movie at least twice in this article. From a two minute trailer, with very little dialogue to begin with. Details are important to people. Your quotation marks are a lie. Either intentional, or you're just a really sloppy... whatever it is you think you are.

Its a damnTerrence Malick film.all personal opinions of actors and Timberlake do not matter.


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