In the beginning....
When Terence Malick puts a film out, everyone pays attention. The writer/director gave us Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line. The Tree of Life won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, the first American film to take home that honour since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. But has the director’s reach exceeded his grasp?
The majority of the film is made up of Jack’s (Sean Penn) memories of his childhood in 1950s Texas with his beautiful, angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) and his strict, terse father (Brad Pitt). The mother intones early on in voice-over that we can pursue nature, with its needs and anguish, or the calmer path of grace.
First of all, The Tree of Life looks absolutely stunning. The film opens with the mother receiving a letter informing her of her son’s death. We watch the parents deal with their grief as Malick introduces us to the swooping, diving style of camera work. Both are clearly devastated, and while we watch the tears flow down Mother’s face, Father struggles to keep a sense of propriety.
Then Malick pulls us back from this intense intimacy. All the way back. Right back to the big bang, in fact, before he charts the course of evolution. And it’s at this point that the litmus test of the film begins. While the photography and the special effects are stunning as we move slowly, accompanied by gorgeous classical music, through the course of existence, it’s undeniably self-indulgent. There are those who are of the opinion that this sequence shows the audience nothing they haven’t seen in an advert or a screensaver. While this may be the case, it’s an audacious sequence that is undeniably a treat for the eyes, even as your patience is being tested. This isn’t helped by an inconsistent voice-over that veers between poetry and pretentious nonsense.
We then return to Waco, Texas, and the course of young Jack’s childhood. Hunter McCracken’s performance as Young Jack is superb, perfectly capturing the repressed rage and confusion of the start of adolescence. It’s in these family scenes that The Tree of Life really connects with the audience. Pitt is at his very best as Mr. O’Brien, who’s unable to properly express his love for his family and letting his frustration turn to harshness. Chastain, who resembles a young Sissy Spacek, is less well-served. While both characters are archetypes, with the father representing nature and the mother representing grace, Mr O’Brien is much more developed. Chastain is perfect as the ethereal, idealised mother of childhood but Malick seems to have no interest in exploring the character beyond that.
As Jack moves (slowly) through the various trials that growing up present him with, the film never stops being a wonder to look at. The performances are good enough that, along with the camera work, there’s more than enough to compensate for the leisurely pace. The issues presented are often overly familiar but Malick is aiming for universal themes, which is one of the biggest problems with The Tree of Life. The style and pace specify a small target audience but Malick is talking about the struggles we all go through. However, it’s not really saying anything that we’ve not heard before. It’s all about love, we’re told. Which would be fine were it not for an astonishingly clunky coda which is one step too far.
This isn’t the masterpiece that Malick was reaching for but it’s gorgeous and moving despite its excesses and self-importance. Finally it succeeds more often than it fails, and when it succeeds it succeeds beautifully. A must-see.