Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Tree of Life is the latest film from Terence Malick, director of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. This being his fifth film since 1973, Malick is a very sporadic director, if artistic – his films have been said to be about a search for identity and spiritual presence.

This statement is heavily reflected in The Tree of Life, especially in the characters of a couple played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as they deal with the grief following the death of one of their three sons. The film also features Sean Penn as one of the other sons, Jack, grown up and an architect in a contemporary cityscape. Jack stands around moodily reminiscing to his childhood. This childhood takes up the largest portion of the film, with young Jack (Hunter McCracken) struggling between two contrasting methods of parenting – his father (Pitt) is strict and controlling while his mother (Chastain) is more liberal and empathetic – the consequences of which are reflected in Penn’s discontent with the world.

All the leads, including Pitt and particularly Penn, give excellent performances. With the dialogue sparse, the bulk of the acting is in the non-verbal expressions, which they all manage in a brilliantly nuanced manner.

Even child actor Hunter McCracken is good – but with a name like that, I wouldn’t expect him to be in arty films like The Tree of Life. I hope to see this when he’s old enough to be an action hero.

But this family’s story is not all, of course. The narrative leaps around a lot, showing the Big Bang, the formation of planets and even dinosaurs. There’s an injured dinosaur and then another dinosaur comes along and nearly kills it but then doesn’t, which may or may not represent something along the lines of the birth of human kindness in the universe. It’s all linked together by the themes of life and spirituality and is all visually poetic, beautifully shot and deep, with meaning behind everything. I did really like the spacey universe sections. The dinosaur section, on the other hand, I felt was entirely pointless and didn’t add enough to the film, having no narrative connection to the main story of the family.

While a lot of the film is excellent, I did feel that it’s too long overall and at times becomes overindulgent and, dare I say it, boring. (Don’t give me any of that “Ooh, you just don’t get it, you uncultured swine” business – Le Quattro Volte was one of my favourite films of the year so far, and that was about the everyday lives of a goat and a tree. So there.)

There’s also a bit near the end where Penn’s Jack goes to what is probably meant to represent Heaven (though I find it funnier to interpret it as “Sean Penn’s acid trip”) and all the characters, dead and alive, are happily reunited and prance around hugging for what must be at least ten minutes. I wasn’t sure whether to throw up or have a nap.

The Tree of Life will be loved by some and hated by some. I’m in the middle, more inclined towards the loving side. It’s definitely not for Jurassic Park fans who’ve heard that it has dinosaurs in, but if you’re interested in the artistic side of film, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Review in video format for lazy illiterates:


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