A new Terence Malick film is something of an event. They don’t come around very often and when they do the anticipation levels rise stratospherically. I love ‘Badlands’; ‘Days of Heaven’ looks beautiful but I’m not a fan of Richard Gere; ‘The Thin Red Line’ is good but ‘The New World’ was just okay. So I went to see his latest film, ‘Tree of life’ without the usual expectations…
Tree of Life is hard to describe, in simple terms it is a small story about the loss of a child and the loss of childish innocence; however on a grander scale it also encompasses everything from the beginning of time, evolution, the birth of life and God.
Much of the film focuses on a typical family living in small town rural Texas in the early 1950’s. Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a stern disciplinarian father of 3 boys and husband to the much softer Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). Through narration, Mrs’ O’Brien informs us early on that in life we must choose between nature and grace, she is a spiritual character who has obviously chosen grace. Mr O’Brien has chosen the way of nature, he tells the boys that their mother is ‘naïve’.
We follow the birth of their children, eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and to a lesser extent Steve (Tye Sheridan) as they develop familial bonds with each other, their mother and strain those bonds with their father. This story is intercut with Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult, now living in the city and clearly still affected by the loss of his brother. Then to show just how miniscule a part we play in the grand scheme of things, Malick throws in the bigger picture journey of the creation of the universe, by God or evolution, and the birth of all life as we currently understand it.
The Tree of Life is cinema as art; it’s audacious, visionary, ambitious, questioning but not lecturing or sermonising, Malick has made a beautiful, poetic film about love. It won’t be for everyone, the film is a journey which you can choose to go with and will probably feel rewarded for; although for some it will feel pretentious and overlong. I went on the journey and I loved the scenes with the family, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are both excellent; however it is the scenes with the children that really give the film its emotional heart; they were played perfectly and the performances from the young cast were exceptional. However, I don’t think that the scenes with the elder Jack worked as well as those 50’s scenes and the film dragged when we were in the ‘modern world’.
This is obviously a very personal film for Malick; he grew up in Texas, in a similar era and as he never gives interviews or even appears to promote his own work we can only speculate as to just how personal. As an attempt to explain and accept the mysteries of life, and death, through mankinds belief in God, evolution or the possibilities of something else, this at the very least shows how at peace Malick is with whatever that may be.
The Doug Trimbull directed special effects sequences are spectacular. It is these scenes which have drawn the comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, hardly surprising as Trimbull was also responsible for those ground-breaking effects in that film. He wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for 2001, although he was nominated (but didn’t win) for his effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, if he doesn’t win for Tree of Life there must be a n Academy conspiracy against him!
Quality: 5 out of 5 stars
Any good: 4 out of 5 stars