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Emmys 2017
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'Tree of Life': What is Terrence Malick's summer opus really about?

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Nestled in between the summer superhero films and action sequels is Terrence Malick’s mysterious Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Its trailer is gorgeous but perplexing, like all of Malick’s movies (The New World, The Thin Red Line), and it only made me hungrier for any details about the May 27 release. So what is it about? According to Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films), who may or may not have a significant role in the film, “I can’t tell you entirely what it’s about because it’s about everything — it’s about a family and it’s about time and space.”

Well, gee, thanks a lot, right? Actually, Shaw’s interview with Empire is quite enthralling in the way she pulls back the curtain on Malick’s process: “He rang me up and said, ‘This is Terrence Malick, I’m doing a film and I wonder could you help me with it.’ He said, ‘I’d like you to write your own part.’ I said, ‘What?!?’ and then I wrote this stuff based on the character he described. When we came to filming, he said, ‘Where would you like to film these scenes?’ …It was the most holistic experience.”

Shaw expects her part to be cut drastically, but she doesn’t know or seem to care: “I think he shoots about 35 films and makes the one that he wants, but he kind of knows all along. What he’s looking for is the accident: he wants the accidents to happen. I suspect he throws out a lot of magnificent work…. I originally spoke more than any other character and I have no doubt I’m in it for two seconds, but I hope it’ll be the best of the two seconds that served him. He’s like a Renaissance painter.”

Malick’s films deliver a surreal contact high, so I get Shaw’s Renaissance reference. Half way into his films, they start to engulf you and all your senses. “You have to come to it with an open heart because I don’t think he’s necessarily trying to please us,” Shaw said. “It’s probably a portrait of his family, probably a portrait of America.”

Shaw’s comments help me better understand why actors leap at the opportunity to work with Malick, even though they know their performance might be slashed to bits in the editing room. It’s quite the creative contradiction though: “Making” the film is so collaborative, but finishing it is autocratic. It’s completely, totally his vision, and no one is spared.

Does Shaw’s remarks make you more interested in The Tree of Life? Or are you now less enthused by a “portrait of America” that’s not “trying to please us?”