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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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