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
“He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. For a while they lived together in a tree house. In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people”. This was the tagline for ‘Badlands’ (1973) and it pretty much sums up the film. What it doesn’t do however is explain just how beautiful, romantic, violent and engrossing the film is.
We follow Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a young garbage collector and his girlfriend Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) as they go on the run after killing Holly’s father (Warren Oates). Kit is a morally ambiguous young man, self-centred and listless; he falls for Holly after seeing her twirl a baton in her front yard. Holly is shy and introverted; she falls for Kit almost immediately as we hear through her narration that he “looked just like James Dean”. As their relationship develops, her father disapproves and it is at this point that Kit casually shoots him. They burn down the house and go on the run…
The film plays out like a fairytale through the inner monologue from Holly that is a constant throughout. She describes in a childish manner what she is feeling and what she believes to be Kits reasons for his actions. This narration and the incredibly haunting score lift the film to another level. Without it we would become detached from Kit and Holly’s world as they are not the most interesting characters. Kit postures more as the film progresses, believing his motives for killing are justified and revelling in his new found fame. Holly remains detached throughout and although initially infatuated with Kit she soon becomes bored with him and the constant running. She is simply along for the ride.
Sheen and Spacek are perfect in their roles, entirely believable and have great screen chemistry. But this is director Terrence Malik’s film, andwhat a beautiful film he has made. The cinematography is gorgeous, with wide vistas of the mid-west and sunsets against distant stormy clouds a constant feature. The backdrops appear almost surreal with only Kit, Holly and whoever they come across in the shots, we rarely see anyone else and this helps establish how isolated they are both physically and as characters.
The killings are not overly bloody and in many cases happen off screen; thaey are played out as almost banal and sterile. They are not really important to Kit other than heightening his noteriety, they just happen and this reinforces that the violence isn’t the central theme of the movie, it’s not about the killings, it’s about the people doing the killings. There isn’t any justifiable reason for any of them except in Kit’s head. When Holly decides to leave Kit he realises that he is doomed and eventually gives up. Believing in his own fame, Kit even goes so far as to mark the exact spot he was captured. If the film had been made in the last decade the critics would call it a ‘critique of modern society’s obsession with fame’. This was made in 1973 and stands the test of time.
It was Terence Malik’s debut; it took him five years to make his follow up ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978) and he would not make another film until ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998). His last film was ‘The New World’ (2005). Not exactly prolific each of his films are worth waiting for, although The New World was somewhat of a disappointment after the high standard he set early on. Badlands was an incredible debut and I don’t think he’s done anything as good since, although not many directors started with the bar set so high.
Quality: 5 out of 5 stars
Any good: 5 out of 5 stars