Dir.: Terrence Malick
With: Hunter McCracken, Brad Pitt, and Jessica Chastain
The logic of film release dates is beyond me. “The Tree of Life” was out in France and Belgium right after the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, it is currently out or about to come out in mainland Europe and is on limited release in the States. The UK release date has not been finalised. So, my UK-based friends, you’ll have to wait for some time before seeing this wonderful film, as it is something that should only be watched on a big screen.
“The Tree of Life” is not a film for everybody. I find that it is quite difficult to pigeonhole into a specific genre, I read it being described somewhere as an ‘existential arthouse epic about the meaning of life’. Make what you will of that. Whilst being 138 minutes long, it has the unusual quality of being “above time” like most Fellini’s works. I felt that time was suspended when I was watching it, the dream-like scenes flowed naturally and morphed into one another without any proper structure that most movies have. Visually, it was an absolute joy. There wasn’t a single shot in the entire film that was not beautiful, ephemeral, intimate, awe-inspiring, magnificent and, at the same time, warm.
The story itself made me want to curl up in a dark corner and die. On the one hand, it is a brilliant character study of a young boy, Jack O’Brien, played with surprising maturity by a new-comer, Hunter McCracken (great name). On the other hand, this is a contemplation of death, loss of innocence, nostalgia, our place in the world and insignificance. The central character, Jack, is a bit of a tortured soul: he is the eldest boy of an average Texan family in the 50s, his mother is a loving and soft woman, his father is a hard disciplinarian. He inherited both of his parents’ traits and these two sides struggle inside him. He is both sensitive and tough; he believes in God, yet he ends up behaving in a way he hates the most. There is also a streak of sibling rivalry and jealousy mixed with tender love towards his younger brother, who is similar to the mother and is perhaps loved a little better by the parents. When Jack grows up into Sean Penn, it appears that the time when he felt the most was exactly during those few warm days of his childhood. He cannot let these memories fade. He is haunted by the same questions that occupied him as a child – why am I here? Why do bad things happen? How to move on? Terrence Malick’s greatest achievement in this film is the incredible way in which he portrayed a child’s mind and its development, his sorrows and joys. I think this resonated with many people in the audience because certain things are universally recognisable.
In my opinion, Brad Pitt emerged here as a very talented and subtle actor. His character in the film was so real, repulsive and pitiable that, in a way, his presence overshadowed everything else. Whenever he was onscreen, you knew that something unpleasant or stirring was going to happen. Jessica Chastain, who looks like someone from a Vermeer painting, was also great, her softness and strong religiosity won by a mile when contrasted to Brad Pitt’s hardness and ambition. Together they created a very life-like family, with its own happy and sad moments.
However, “The Tree of Life” borders on pretension in its cosmic scale – I’m not sold on the ending, the religious context was inescapable and there is also a 15-minute montage of the creation of life, together with beautiful space shots from the Hubble telescope, bacteria and a couple of expressive dinosaurs. I am a ‘National Geographic’ kinda gal so I quite enjoyed this and found it rather hypnotic, I am sure others would dismiss this as a pile of unnecessary self-importance. I don’t think this is the greatest film ever made, but I most certainly think that you should definitely watch it when you have the chance; the brilliance in it outweighs the indistinctness. I promise you, you will be moved and most likely reminded of your own childhood. You will also be left speechless after this make-belief journey through someone else's life is over.