Sunday, 10 July 2011

Review: The Tree of Life

Rating: 12A  
Runtime: 139 min

After the buzz surrounding The Tree of Life even before its Palme d'Or success at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it only seems natural that such appraisal is justified. Not only that, but when you learn it's written and directed by uber private and semi recluse Terrence Malick (BadlandsThe Thin Red Line), will see that his filmograhpy consists of a handful of projects, tending to make (on average) around one film per decade, then it's perhaps time to feel privileged that this is the first of two new features due out within a year of each other.

Aside from ToL walking away with the Cannes 2011 top prize, this art house piece will not be to everyone's taste. It's a very difficult film to pigeon hole, as it mixes elements of the mainstream such as Brad Pitt, with some of the surreal abstractness of art house not too dissimilar to the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

ToL can be summed up in a few simple words: Beautiful. Ambiguous. Emotive. In terms of a narrative or structure, Malick ceases to conform to any real boundaries in perhaps one of his most pretentious films to date. Instead, he proceeds with an eclectic mix of stunning scenery and CGI visuals, which shows the breathtaking cinematography on offer here. Thematically, ToL offers life and death, birth and creation, as well as a borderline preachy message of God. At points some off-screen narration does feel a little forced, but is immediately toned down with the visceral imagery on offer.

After a gradual and somewhat methodical opening, he presents several scenes of semi-abstract visuals of the creation of life itself. This arguably goes on a little too long, yet doesn't cease in its poignancy. Thereafter, the bulk of the film focuses on a family of five set in 1950's Texas. Headed by totalitarian Father, only known as Mr O' Brien (Brad Pitt), we follow the normality (or supposed definition) of family life, which includes his spouse, played by Jessica Chastain, and their three children with the knowledge that - thanks to a flash forward near the beginning of the film - one of the brothers will die at nineteen. The notion of what is going to happen makes the time that proceeds the event all the more captivating. The narration of their, at times, nonchalant, everyday life is executed so exquisitely as Malick immerses the audience into suburban Americana. 

Notably Pitt is accomplished in his role as a strict and dominant figure within the household. Crucially, the children - especially Jack, played by Hunter McCracken - is sublime as Malick scores big with an array of talented youngster. This section of the film therefore stands tall in its quality if acting, as the lives of these people strangely fascinate as their lives progress to reveal more about them. A pacey and emotionally gripping tale feels totally genuine: we witness the guilts, pleasures and rich personalities of the family. What becomes obvious is the particular references Malick interweaves throughout: the use of hands stroking hair, pats on shoulders and emotional embraces, coupled with majestic images of, you've guessed it - trees - which keep the story grounded in realism, especially in the ambitious context of things.

This story is juxtaposed with a surreal spiritual journey through the universe, which is cut with fantastical precision  and yet more ambiguity, as we shift back and forth through time and are introduced to an older, middle-aged, Jack (Sean Penn), in various nonsensical locations.
Malick will no doubt have a clear vision and reasoning behind every single frame but sometimes the disjointedness can leave you feeling a little lost beneath the ambition of the project, whether it be in reference to the setting, character, or their action.

At just under two-and-a-half hours, ToL doesn't feel overblown nor, might I add, is it a bore. Granted, some parts are harder to get through than others, but a film such as this requires an open mind and a certain degree of patience for its build up. The score complements the film with its chillingly mellow tone and is sure to be up for Oscar contention in such categories, as well as for its cinematography and directing.

A minor point - if you go in the hope of seeing a Sean Penn film, then you'll be left short changed. He features no longer than fifteen minutes (at a push) and doesn't do a whole lot other than walk around guilt ridden and looking confused, with Pitt as the fore runner in respect to screen time.

Some may perceive this as a laborious and self indulgent addition to Malick's filmography. Others may recognise it as a wonderfully told and striking masterpiece from one of the greatest visionaries of his time. Terrence Malick presents a story that encapsulates a range of emotions, even though it occasionally loses focus, and remains rooted in its values. The sentiment behind the O'Briens is touching, but the even deeper meaning and iconography he uses is breathtaking.

At times The Tree of Life demands your fullest attention and looks set to divide audience opinion. At others, one can merely sit back, relax, and soak up the splendour Malick has given us. There really is nothing else out there that can offer such an eclectic and evocative narrative as this does, whilst at the same time leaving you to ponder what it all actually means.