The Tree of Life
Director: Terence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Running time: 139 minutes.
By Robert O’Reilly
Often nicknamed cinema’s invisible man, Terence Malick is renowned for taking massive gaps between his output as a director, having only taken the helm on five movies in a 38 year career. With only a six year hiatus under his belt (his last film was the critically derided but somewhat underrated The New World), Malick is back in the director’s chair once again with The Tree of Life.
The story centres around a family trying to come to terms with the vastly changing landscape of 1950’s suburban America, particularly focussing on eldest son Jack (brilliantly played by Hollywood newcomer Hunter McCracken). He struggles, along with the rest of his family, including easygoing mother (Jessica Chastain), to cope with life under their extremely domineering, company executive father (Brad Pitt), who rules the family with an iron fist. Most of the film is told in flashbacks from the point of view of the now-grey-haired Jack (Sean Penn), who appears disillusioned with his suit and tie job in a high-rise office building. Jack reminisces about his loss of innocence and attempts to come to terms with his childhood regrets.
Perhaps if this storyline was filmed by Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood, one would expect the film to be a dramatic, emotional tearjerker attempting to tug the heartstrings of the audience. However, despite The Tree of Life sometimes doing that very thing at certain moments, the film often veers off into some very strange territory indeed. Including footage of CGI dinosaurs and the director’s take on the beginning of the universe, Malick’s latest opus comes across as a top-notch drama crossed with a Discovery Channel documentary. While both of these elements are certainly interesting in and of themselves, together they just don’t seem to gel and it’s quite possible that at certain points in the film the viewer might think that they are actually watching two different movies that have been spliced together as a filmmaking experiment. Take one large dash of Stand by Me, sprinkle it with a reel or two of 2001: A Space Odyssey and up sprouts The Tree of Life.
Much maligned for the overuse of voiceover in 1998’s The Thin Red Line, the director is up to his old tricks once again, with several characters conveying their views on the non-diegetic soundtrack. While sometimes this works pretty well, Malick’s dependence on it to explain parts of the story can start to grate on the nerves after a while. The acting is of the highest calibre throughout the film, with particular kudos going to Pitt for maybe his most mature performance to date and Chastain as his frustrated wife is in fine form too.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, with swirling camerawork seemingly searching the very heavens themselves for answers to the meaning of life is splendid at all times and Alexandre Desplat’s original score is both subdued and soaring, complimenting the film beautifully at every juncture.
Although Malick should be commended for attempting what is certainly a very ambitious undertaking, the different branches of The Tree of Life simply don’t add up to an altogether satisfying experience.