Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken.
Maverick director Terrence Malick is not exactly a prolific filmmaker, and this is only his fifth film in a thirty-year career. Malick is best known for films like Badlands and Days Of Heaven, which are memorable for their striking images, elegiac quality, and meditative tone. The Tree Of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is his most ambitious undertaking yet.
This is a film that sees Malick combine an exploration of religious values with a coming of age story, albeit with grander themes woven through the elliptical and elusive narrative. This is a baffling spiritual masterpiece about lost innocence. The Tree Of Life is an impressionistic look at a family in crisis in small town Texas in the 1950’s, but it doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure. It has something of an autobiographical feel to it as Malick draws extensively from his own childhood growing up in Waco, Texas. But it is also something of a pretentious bore, full of religious allegory and symbolism, that will have many scratching their heads trying to fathom the meaning of it all.
Malick again explores that sense of connection and disconnection between man and nature, and he looks at the contrasting forces of creation and destruction. The Tree Of Life offers up a brief history of the universe as well as exploring the very mystery of human existence itself. Malick has previously eschewed special effects, but here he has virtually overloaded segments of the film with spectacular CGI imagery. Malick treats us to a brief history of the world, walks with dinosaurs and takes us on a Kubrickian-like exploration of space with a wonderful marriage of images and beautiful music score by Alexandre Desplat. The special effects sequences here have been designed in collaboration with an uncredited Douglas Trumball, whose visionary work on Kubrick’s masterpiece indelibly stamped his unique visual style on the film.
One constant in Malick’s films has been their gorgeous visuals, and The Tree Of Life is no different. The film has been beautifully shot on hand held camera by Mexican-born cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Malick’s The New World, Sleepy Hollow, etc), who captures some haunting and evocative images. Malick’s regular production designer Jack Fisk’s gets the period details right, and its stunning evocation of everyday life in the 1950’s reeks of authenticity.
Sean Penn is wasted in a virtually wordless role as the adult Jack O’Brien, an obviously troubled soul who is undergoing something of a midlife crisis and feels disconnected with the world around him. He reflects back on an earlier, simpler and more innocent time, and we see his childhood through a series of extended flashbacks. Jack is the oldest of the three O’Brien boys, and it is his journey into puberty that we follow on screen. This is easily the best part of this difficult movie as it charts his increasingly difficult relationship with his father.
Brad Pitt, who co-produced the film, is good as Jack’s father, a bitter man struggling to come to terms with his own failings as a man. He finds outlets for his frustration in tending his small backyard garden, playing the organ at the local church, and in teaching his three sons boxing and values. Jessica Chastain brings fragility, ethereal beauty and a subtle strength to her role as Jack’s understanding and gentle mother, who shelters the boys from their father’s rage and volatile temperament. Newcomer Hunter McCracken is excellent as the young, headstrong Jack, trying to live up to the harsh expectations of his strict and deeply religious father. He has a natural presence, and his anger and sense of frustration is palpable, and almost bursts through the screen.
There are few dialogue-heavy scenes here, and much of the dialogue is (deliberately) inaudible, and we only hear snatches of conversation.
However, at 138 minutes the film seems far too long and often self-indulgent. Even hardcore devotees of Malick may find The Tree Of Life a difficult film to come to terms with. What is it all about? One’s understanding and interpretation of this beguiling and at times infuriatingly elliptical and immersive film will be largely shaped by their own experiences and perceptions.