Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Tree of Life

2011. Dir: Terrence Malick. Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken and Laramie Eppler. ●●●●○ or ●●○○○ (possibly ●●●●● or ●●●○○, but definitely not ●○○○○)

I begin to write this review some 48 hours after having seen Terrence Malick's much anticipated The Tree of Life and as you can see from my blob rating time has done nothing but confuse my judgement. I constantly veer from profound admiration for magical leaps in cinematic art Malick presents to the measurable discomfort relating to his disregard of narrative and leaps of pretension. It is both absurd and beautiful, heartfelt and arrogant, divisive and all-encompassing, I love it and loathe it. In short it is like nothing else in cinemas and deserves to be given full attention, but I can't say I'll be rushing to watch it again.

It's film within a film within a history of the universe centres around the experiences of a typical suburban family in a middle America town in the 1950's, more especially the movie dissects how we are shaped and moulded by our parents, how are personalities are fought over by the twin influences of a nurturing mother and a volatile protective father, the characteristics of grace and nature, personified by Jassica Chastain and Brad Pitt. Not that the stereotypical design of the parents in anyway diminishes the essence of the performances or the point of the family set-up, but nevertheless the simplicity of the family unit and the broad roles assigned within must be acknowledged to appreciate the intent.

Choosing their way are the three pre-pubescent sons of our central couple, Hunter McCracken as the eldest Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), middle son R.L (Eppler) whose unexplained death in his early 20's is largely a catalyst for the torrent of memories and Tye Sheridan as the youngest Steve. Taking into account the childs eye view and the unreliability of memory the bulk of the movie, observing the film is stunning and instantly recognisable. As an audience we flit from seemingly disconnected scenes - Chastain chases a butterfly, Pitt practices on the church organ, the boys play chaotic and rough games, the family tersely sit down for dinner. However each of these moments is ideally crafted to reveal how the unit works and where the cracks that will ultimately define the boys adulthood begin.

If the film had only been this portion of the movie then I would have liked the whole a lot better, the universality of the themes and the high-calibre work from everyone involved is emotionally fulfilling and intellectually satisfying. Pitt does his best work I've ever seen and in McCracken we have the makings of a superb character actor, a boy who's glowering and intensity will serve him well.

Outside of this though the staggering levels of self-indulgence and waffle are extraordinary, Sean Penn mopes around his scenes inarticulate and sporting a look of confusion and pain that are reminiscent of constipation than a profound recognition of the wonders of life. In the final act we are treated to a glimpse of the afterlife (maybe, who knows) as Penn wanders around a beach collecting his family from the random extras from the rest of the film in an indeterminably overlong sequence or reconciliation. As for the creation of the Earth and the development of life, whilst it's all very pretty and Douglas Trumball's special effects work is fascinating, it comes across as largely self-serving. Does not the excellent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki exhibit the place of this family in nature without the point being hammered home? Doesn't Chastain crying out to God for taking her child mean enough without outlining how little we seem to figure into His plans? Isn't the excellent classical, Judeo-Christian soundtrack and repeated references to the story of Job enough to illustrate God's hand in our fate?

I am left with so many questions, so much in the film is about the feel or texture of the emotions, so much is designed to open doors to philosophical concepts and not box us into pat answers. What did I think overall, would I recommend the film? These questions are irrelevant. I experienced Tree of Life, I think people should experience Tree of Life, some sections were superb, others awful. I honestly don't know whether it's good or whether I enjoyed it. Maybe one day I'll be able to come to a conclusion, maybe not.


TomS said...

Brilliant review Ben.. I think you really "got" it, criticisms and all. It intends to reach a viewer in multiple ways, and so we are left without the usual criteria to judge a film's success. To me it is like a piece of music. And come to think of it, it only seems more self-indulgent than the parade of summer blosckbusters because it has made us think differently, and about different things, than most movies...and we expect a serious film to be less simple. I hope you and i can watch it together some day, have a pint and solve the mysteries of the universe!!

Alex in Movieland said...

You sure aren't the only one having issues with the Sean Penn part. I have no idea when I'm gonna see it, in a theatre or not. at least it seems to be an interesting experience.

Runs Like A Gay said...


You've hit the nail on the heading comparing it to music, the film feels like an experience that washes over you and absorbs you, quite unlike anything I've ever seen.

I agree that I need to see it again with someone else to immediately discuss the themes, so maybe one day we'll have to catch up with it together.


Whatever I think of it, even once I've decided what I think of it, I can't underline how this movie must be seen in a proper cinema with surround sound and low level lighting (and no way of getting distracted by emptying the washing machine or traffic in the street).