Malick's 'The Tree of Life' a deeply intimate film

Garden table
Jessica Chastain and Tye Sheridan play mother and son in "The Tree of Life"
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Minneapolis producer Bill Pohlad's controversial new film "The Tree of Life" opens in Minnesota this weekend.

It recently won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and drew raves from some critics. Others found it mystifying and even pretentious.

The movie is both astronomical in its scope and deeply intimate. It's centered around a family's struggles in Texas in the 1950s. But director Terrence Malick weaves in themes and images of deep space and earthly wonders — even dinosaurs.

The film is saturated with lush music and moments of intense beauty and characters who pose profound questions of life, faith and philosophy.

The father, played by Brad Pitt, tells his three sons they have to fight for everything.

"Your mother is naive," he says. "It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you are good people take advantage of you."

The cast and crew for "The Tree of Life" used an intensive shooting process, taking and retaking scenes to allow for editing later in the film. The movie includes images from space, nature, and even pre-history.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

But the mother, played by newcomer Jessica Chastain, sees the world more in terms of the opportunities to spread love.

"I think the nature of "The Tree of Life" is that it asks more questions than it answers, and every person that sees it, it means something new to them," said Chastain.

Sitting in a Minneapolis hotel suite, Chastain said she can only explain what the film means to her: It's about the tension between nature and the survival of the fittest and grace — the gentle love displayed by her character.

"It asks the question, 'What kind of human do you want to be?' " she said.

In a directing career launched in 1973 with "Badlands," Malick has become world famous as an iconoclast filmmaker — despite only having five features to his name. He's been nominated twice for an Oscar, both for "The Thin Red Line" in 1998. Two of his other features — 1978's "Days of Heaven" and 2005's "The New World" — are widely admired for their beauty and almost dream-like appearance.

Chastain called the script for "The Tree of Life" one of the most amazing things she's ever read. But she added that knowing Malick was going to be blending the actors' performances with all sorts of other material posed big challenges.

Jessica Chastain
jessica Chastain as the mother in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

"Working on a Terrence Malick set, it has to be absolutely real all the time, because you don't know what's going to be in the movie," she said.

She said the cast would get into character and play scenes again and again until the camera ran out of film. Then they would reload the camera and do it again.

Early in the film, Chastain's character learns of the death of a key character.

"The telegram shows up, and I answer the door, and then just we explore what happens to this woman in the next four minutes of her life," she said. "And then you do it again. And you do it again, and again and again. And we worked that way for weeks."

Malick later edited together a montage of the takes into an all-encompassing whole that is so awash in grief it's hard to watch.

To prepare for her role, Malick had Chastain studied paintings of the Madonna at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He also had her listen to the early work of Lauren Bacall to learn how to speak in measured tones. She also meditated and read extensively about states of grace.

Chastain said making "The Tree of Life" was draining, but is grateful for the experience. And she credits producer Pohlad for the chance.

"He is such a smart, intelligent, passionate person about cinema," she said. "And he kind of went out on a limb and put me in this film — of course, along with Terrence Malick."

Pohlad, son of the late Twins owner Carl Pohlad, has a string of hits to his name, including "Brokeback Mountain" and "Into the Wild." While "The Tree of Life" has drawn critical acclaim and some notoriety, it now faces the real test at the box office.

Chastain said she likes that it's the kind of a movie that sparks debate.

"You either love them or you hate them, and it's not just this kind of lukewarm, 'Oh, I had a hard day at work, I'm going to go home and watch 'The Tree of Life,' " she smiled. "This film absolutely requires that you walk in with an open heart and an open mind and participate in the movie experience."

And you can call Chastain a Malick fan. She's already completed shooting for his next film, due out next year.