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Reading tea leaves on 'The Tree of Life'

September 21, 2010 | 12:49 pm

Discerning the storyline on Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is turning into the same parlor game for cinephiles as guessing details about "The Avengers" has become for fanboys. Instead of using costume choices to divine meaning on superhero mythology, Malick fans are trying to decide what interviews with members of the cast and crew tell us about characters' ontological struggles, or whether the film will echo the themes of "Badlands" or "Days of Heaven." (Hey, they're cinephiles.)

What we do know: Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play a mid-century couple. They have kids, and one of them struggles to adulthood, eventually growing up to be Sean Penn. But that's about it.

Malick A press release from distributor Fox Searchlight two weeks ago didn't cast much light. The movie, it said, "is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s chronicling the journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years – trying to reconcile the complicated relationship with his father. Jack finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith."

Well, that about describes many of us, at least sometime midway through sophomore year of college.  And so we still wonder -- what is it that actually happens in the film?

We caught up with Chastain last week, right after the actress began earning raves for her performance in Toronto film "The Debt," to see if she might be able to offer more clues. "I'm not sure what I can say," she began when we raised the subject. But then she did indeed say a few things.

The actress said the movie was essentially about the conflict between "nature and grace" -- which she defined as the conflict between a spiritual life and one of more primitive survival. Her character represents the former, while Pitt's stands for the latter. "And the children have to decide which path they want to take," she said.

She also said that Malick was taking a casual approach to the script. If there were seven pages of dialogue, and she didn't recall all of them, Malick would tell her to "just say what you remember."

Fidelity to Malick's script, or the absence thereof, was a theme on the set of the 2008 shoot. As Malick was casting the children in the movie, Chastain pointed out that a particular actor wouldn't work because the script called for a 5-year-old and the kid in question was too old. Malick's casual response: "Oh, Jessica, no one reads the script."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Terrence Malick. Credit: Getty Images


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