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A glorious vision of nature, spirit and family strife
on October 16, 2011
This is, literally, a stunning film, especially on blu-ray. The natural first response at the end of it, if you've given it your undivided attention for its full 139 minutes, is to feel stunned into silence as if you've been hit with something huge and heavy. And the next response is to feel that you'll have to see it again to clarify just what you've been hit with. It's not that the film is conceptually complex or difficult; it's just that Malick, as in his other films, takes on truly enormous themes and takes them seriously in a way that filmmakers hardly ever do in our jaded and ironic age. This will surely strike some viewers as TOO serious, ponderous, even pretentious. Nobody chooses a Malick film for light entertainment.
The quotation from the Book of Job which opens the film is the first clue to what it's all about. As in the Book of Job, some of the most compelling "dialogue" consists of unanswered questions addressed to the mysterious creative spirit behind the universe. Or perhaps we should say that the Creator's answer is the universe itself. We don't see God in the film, but we do see the Creation, rendered with spectacular visual effects to tell a story informed by the cosmological insights of contemporary physics, followed up with the evolution of life on earth, compressed into a few minutes. It's left to the viewer to discern the connections between this cosmic narrative and the story of an ordinary family living in Texas in the 1950s, which is the other subject of the film. It's the members of this family whose disembodied voices whisper the agonizing questions to the unseen Creator in the first part of the film. Then in the latter part, we see where these questions are coming from, especially for the family's eldest son - and in the end, we see the resolution to which all the conflicts and questions lead.
As in Malick's other films, this is all done with a minimum of dialogue between the characters, relying on the visuals (including the actors' expressions), and gloriously evocative music, to tell the story. And as before, Malick takes an idea that has been developing in his imagination for years or decades, and captures it with amazing spontaneity (and almost exclusively with natural light and steadicam). His process, like his product, is quite unique, and it's good to have the illuminating half-hour extra on the blu-ray, in which that process is described by the producers, cast and crew members. Other filmmakers, Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, also testify to the unique quality of Malick's films and the influence he's had on them. (The DVD in this combo pack does not include this "making-of" featurette. I should also mention one oddity of the blu-ray: it offers a soundtrack dubbed in French, but only English subtitles with the English soundtrack.)
In short, i can see why this film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. But i expect i'll be watching it again soon and further exploring the vast world Terrence Malick has rendered in film.