BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - Terrence Malick kicks off his new film, “The Tree of Life,” with a bang. The Big Bang, actually. Over the next 138 minutes, the viewer witnesses a journey through history that ends up in a small town in Texas. Critics seem to agree that you’ll either love it or hate it.
“Terrence Malick has vision,” Brad Pitt, who stars in the film, tells The Japan Times. “He’s not about commercial concerns, he’s about stretching filmmaking to the limit.”
It’s a vision that not everyone is seeing, but those who do are impressed. The critic Roger Ebert called the film a “form of prayer” that made him “alert to the awe of existence.” The film also won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in France.
Malick is famous for not giving interviews. He has directed six films since debuting with the short “Lanton Mills” in 1969. This lack of output has been attributed to his perfectionist approach to making movies. As Japan Times film critic Giovanni Fazio pointed out in last week’s review of “The Tree of Life,” this can be both a curse and a blessing.
However, Pitt stands by Malick’s perfectionism, “When Terrence makes a movie, he takes his time. He can’t be dictated to. He’ll wait just as long as he needs to start shooting.”
The 47-year-old Pitt plays the role of a father in 1950s America. He is rather brutish toward his wife, played by Jessica Chastain, and his three sons. Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn portrays the role of the eldest son, Jack, as an adult. It’s Jack’s quest to discover the answers to existential questions such as the meaning of life that the film focuses on.
“This isn’t good guys/bad guys, it’s a whole different ball game,” Pitt says. “Terrence takes the actors — and then the audience — on a journey. It’s a flawed world, full of flawed people. It’s about realism.”
The journey itself takes a while to unfold, and some critics have joked that the project seems to be more of a National Geographic-style documentary with fantastically filmed scenes from nature. Pitt points out that the slow pace shouldn’t be a problem for most viewers and notes that film visionary Stanley Kubrick most likely took a lot of flak when he released “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968.
Penn, 50, agrees with Pitt’s assessment on the pace of the movie. He thinks Malick’s audience is smart enough to know what they are getting into.
“If you’re watching this movie, instead of just sitting or eating through it, you won’t find it slow,” Penn says. “People who watch documentaries won’t find them slow.”
Though his role in the film has relatively few speaking lines, Penn is visibly enthusiastic about his participation.
“I wasn’t bothered by the amount of dialogue,” he says. “An actor’s lines aren’t the biggest thing about his character. It was a chance to depict some real life through physicality and, of course, the camera. It’s life as real as it can be without it being a documentary. Or a reality show.”
Obviously, both Pitt and Penn bring a certain amount of star power to Malick’s film, and Pitt also took on a role as coproducer. He says he didn’t do that just to get the film made, but he hoped to ease the way.
“I wasn’t in on his last movie,” says Pitt, “and who knows when the next one will be. But I wanted to be as much a part of this as I was able.”
“Terrence will go out on a limb, do things other guys won’t do. Or that you’re not supposed to do,” Penn adds. “Because in most films everything has to be explained and spoon-fed to the audience.”
Without going into too much detail, so as not to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it yet, it can safely be said that it doesn’t tie up nicely. However, both stars are adamant that the film shouldn’t wrap things up in a typical manner — it’s an idea that is stressed throughout the interview.
“It’s like life, where some questions remain open,” Pitt says. “You can’t always have answers to things. Some things are probably meant to be mysteries.”
Penn goes one further and points out that the lack of clarity some critics are deriding the film for is a good thing.
“He lets you finish watching and end up with a few questions. What’s wrong with that?” Penn asks. “After his movies, you go back out into the real world and you think about it — and maybe talk about it.”
Malick’s films tend to fare better at box-offices overseas than in the United States, where so-called art-house films appeal to a smaller number of moviegoers. It’s for this reason that Pitt believes “The Tree of Life” will appeal to audiences in Japan.
“I think it’s more in (Japan’s) tradition of more leisurely filmmaking,” Pitt says. “There’s the Hollywood tradition of the happy ending, but most people in the world — me among them — tend to think the beginning is the happier time. Like with this family. When a child is born, it’s almost a miracle — a wonderful, happy thing. Then time enters the picture, human frailties and faults enter the relationships, and kids can end up estranged from their parents and from their own lives.
“In any relationship, maybe the first few years are the best. Maybe the ending is the worst, when it all breaks up. Like in marriage, too.”
While on the topic of Japan, Pitt mentions his concern about those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Pitt knows a fair amount about reconstruction after a disaster. The actor spearheaded an effort to rebuild homes in areas of New Orleans that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. On top of that, he and his wife, actress Angelina Jolie, frequently donate to charities.
Pitt mentions the group Direct Relief International as “a really responsible and worthwhile organization. It has been around since about 1948, and they also work with the Japanese American Citizens League toward Japan’s relief effort. One-hundred percent of the funds go to help, and it’s an outfit I feel comfortable about supporting or giving funds to.”
Penn is also no stranger to humanitarian causes. He was involved in efforts to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina and, in particular, took quite a large role in helping those affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The Haitian government has reported that at least 310,000 were killed in that disaster, as well as 1 million being made homeless. Penn believes that one thing Japan has in its favor with regards to rebuilding, is its sturdy infrastructure.
“Japan is highly developed,” he says. “It’s not the same situation as in poor places with primitive infrastructures. I’m for helping out anyone in need, but I think you should ask, ‘What’s behind an assistance project? Who’s doing it and why?’ Sometimes there’s a specific agenda — like a group I heard of called Pray for Japan. What’s that going to achieve? Is it a front for religious zealotry?
“Then there’s the Lady Gaga Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. It sounds good, but why name it after herself? How much of that is for publicity? I know the main thing is getting money and aid to the people who need it. But you want to get involved with a group with a proven background, that’s there to help the people — not push its own point of view or philosophy.” [Several organizations have adopted the Pray For Japan moniker, including prayforjapan.org, a group of missionaries who have been active in Japan for eight years.]
Pitt reiterates Penn’s opinion on Japan’s infrastructure, “It’s a huge issue, but it’s also one of the few times when a catastrophe on that scale happened to a place that wouldn’t sink if others didn’t step in and help.”
With the disasters fresh in thought, taking a look at the questions Malick presents in “The Tree of Life,” or the natural beauty he focuses in on, could mean audiences in Japan walk out of the cinema with a different take on the film. At least it’ll get them talking.
“The Tree of Life” is now playing in cinemas across the country.