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The Tree of Life

USA 2011
Directed by
Terrence Malick
138 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Tree Of Life

Synopsis: In 1950s Texas, Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) is the eldest of three boys and carries the burden of expectations that that implies for his strict father (Brad Pitt), who considers his own life a failure and wants his son to achieve what he could not. When Jack’s brother is killed the family is traumatised with a pain that haunts Jack into his adult life

Terrence Malick's latest film is probably going to divide audiences but everyone should agree that, compared to mainstream American film-making and characteristic of the director, The Tree Of Life is an impressively ambitious work. Not as attention-grabbing as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,(1968) a film which is going to be regularly cited as a point of comparison, but nevertheless one which attempts to picture life with its pain and pathos and over-arching sense of strangeness. A more relevant point of comparison is the director's own 1999 film The Thin Red Line with its similar meditative inclinations.

The division of audiences is very much going to hinge on a division in the film itself which is between on the one hand the realistic story of Jack and his family and the tragedy that befalls them and on the other, a far-reaching rumination on the metaphysics and cosmology of life, spread across a glorious, Koyaanisqati-like abstracted visual essay that interweaves the micro and macro levels of the physical world and a wordless adjunct story of the adult Jack (now played by Sean Penn), reflecting on the whys and wherefores of his life.

The small scale, everyday story of growing up in the 1950s few will have a problem with. No doubt drawing on his own experience (he was born in 1948), Malick creates a telling portrait of normal family life in the Eisenhower years with the inflexible paterfamilias, the quietly dutiful wife and tearaway kids who observe it all with wonder while the sprinklers beat out their rhythm on the much-loved front lawn. Brad Pitt does an excellent job in portraying a man who loves his kids and wants the best for them but is separated from them by his ideas of manhood. Jessica Chastain, an actress who has mainly worked in television until now, is poignant as the devoted mother and wife, and Hunter McCracken does a fine job as young Jack. If this was all that the film was you’d probably still be very well-satisfied.

Malick is, not without justification, often accused of over-playing his hand and he certainly will be again here. Whilst Malick’s initial cutting between the realistic story of young Jack and a more hyper-real version of an adult Jack wandering through some corporate glass-and-steel wasteland is a little unusual it stays within the broad conventions of narrative cinema. Then he abruptly takes us on a spacey 15-minute trip depicting the cosmos and the appearance of life on Earth. Visually this is arresting but as a comment on the “big picture” is probably too long to be effective, particularly when we start getting Spielbergian dinosaurs running about. The film then reverts to the main story before segueing to a kind of dream sequence with the adult Jack wandering through a dreamscape of his memories with Penn doing his getting-to-be-too-familiar tormented man thing. Whilst we understand the importance of this to Malick’s panoramic intentions, dramatically, it spins free. Penn’s name looks good on the marquee but a lesser-known actor probably would have minimised the incongruity.

The Tree of Life offers no simple love it or hate it choice. Older film-makers often get more inward looking but unlike Coppola’s clunky 2007 meditation on life, Youth Without Youth, Malick has delivered a film that rewards viewing (and viewing again). How much one is rewarded will depend on the individual. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is marvellous (although I found the hand-held work unnecessary) and the score, which uses original compositions by Alexandre Desplat as well as various classical pieces, is rich and varied and both add much to the overall effect of  the film.




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