DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick.
CAST: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Laramie Eppler, Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw.
SYNOPSIS: Jack O’Brien (McCracken) and his two brothers (Eppler, Sheridan) grow up in the 1960s, spending their days carefree and full of play. We witness firsthand the loss of innocence through Jack’s eyes as he experiences his first brushes with death and suffering. The world is no longer as perfect as he believed and his family struggle with his quick progression into adolescence. Running parallel to this, an older Jack (Penn) tries to atone and understand past events in his life, working towards being able to forgive his father (Pitt).
To say The Tree of Life is grandiose is a complete understatement. It is beautiful, indulgent, heartfelt and extremely honest. And I truly believe it to be a masterpiece. Clichés aside, Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning film has been rather controversial, being booed at Cannes and five people walked out when I saw it. But I believe this to be a sign of a great filmmaker, somebody who divides opinion and stems controversial discussion. At the end of the day, this isn’t going to be a film people forget.
Alongside the narrative featuring Brad Pitt and wife Jessica Chastain, Malick invests heavily in interludes revolving around cosmic events and elements of nature. As visually stunning and mesmerising as they are, today’s mainstream audience seems to struggle with this apparent ‘out of the box’ idea and therefore the film hasn’t had the widest of releases in the UK. But by taking the chance of seeing through his own vision, Malick has made a truly beautiful film that is testament to both his imagination and the talent he has embellished it with.
Although not top billed, the core of this film is Hunter McCracken, whose portrayal of a young Jack is as heartbreaking and frustrating as it is liberating. He epitomises the struggles of childhood and gives an extremely natural, albeit haunting, performance. Awkward, but headstrong, McCracken gives Jack just enough edge to make us genuinely worry for his future behaviour. I would love to believe the Academy would consider him for a Best Supporting nod for the upcoming Oscar race, but somehow I think nominations for this film will be a little sparse. Scenes shared with younger brother R.L. (Eppler) are completely absorbing, being a wonderful lesson in realism and an amazing introduction to two new and exceptionally talented youngsters. It is a complete joy to watch the brothers (the third being Sheridan’s Steve) at play, tumbling through long grass, playing with dogs, frogs and enforces an instant urge for a time when kids were allowed to run around outside all day without fear of the consequences. Tin can telephones, air rifles and bricks through windows are all part of the neighbourhood’s daily discoveries, with the aftermath of entering a neighbour’s unlocked house perfectly summing up youthful regret.
At the end of each playful summer day, Jack’s mother is always there to soothe and heal any cuts and bruises. Wonderfully stoic, whilst symbolising a mother’s beauty to perfection, Jessica Chastain is brilliant casting from Malick and someone to get very familiar with, as The Help and The Wettest County in the World are set to be big upcoming releases for her. Barely sharing any words with her strict husband (Pitt), the contrast between the two actors is a very interesting thing to observe, but it does make you yearn to find out the couple’s origins and view a time when Mr O’Brien was not so commanding and intimidating. It is refreshing to see Pitt take a role where his character’s looks aren’t important, and his dark streak here is far removed from that of Aldo Raine’s. Pitt’s time onscreen is somewhat limited and dialogue free, but the lines he has highly impress, leading you to forget it is Pitt you are watching and instead have you following the father in Jack’s family.
If Pitt’s screen time is limited, Sean Penn’s is practically nonexistent. But he is paramount in bringing the story up to present day, being the mind through which we recount the events of Jack’s childhood. He is barely more than a presence, but this works to great effect being a film where the narrative is not as important as the actual memories that are recalled. It of course also points to the calibre of actor Malick can attract in a heartbeat. The cast for his next project is astoundingly perfect.
Also verging on perfect is the film’s soundtrack. Man of the moment Alexandre Desplat has produced a score that sounds nothing like his recent works for New Moon, Harry Potter or The King’s Speech and if anything sounds most like his score for another Brad Pitt-vehicle, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Rich with beautiful piano melodies and hypnotising strings, Desplat’s score gives another layer to the wonder and spiritual tone of the film. It compliments Emmanuel Lubezkis’s stunning cinematography perfectly, the sweeping strings seeming to urge along the fluid camera movements. The shooting techniques will not be to everyone’s taste with the majority of shots following characters up-close from behind, but there are countless wide sweeping nature shots and some stomach churning swirls when following a plane in flight at one point. The up-close and personal technique strongly reminded me of the style Darren Aronofsky used with a handheld for both The Wrestler and Black Swan, with his phenomenally beautiful futuristic effects in The Fountain being on a similar page to a lot of the space-scapes we view in Malick’s film.
The Tree of Life won’t be to everyone’s taste and I’ve met a lot of people who despised it, leading me to believe there’s not a middle ground with this film. Those who hate it view it as an overindulgent, extremely long and drawn-out film with a nonexistent plot and as a complete waste of time. Although everyone does seem to agree on the kids being very cute and impressive. Those who love it do so because they found themselves completely absorbed in a story of lost innocence, a dilemma of faith and nostalgic childhood. We know Malick’s a great storyteller. He wrote the majority of what he’s directed and no one can turn around and say 1973’s Badlands didn’t have a very clear and direct narrative.
Personally, I loved this film and will happily testify its greatness to anyone, but I was surprised at quite how emotionally involved I felt with little Jack (which is complete testament to McCracken). Huge questions are asked by Penn in regards to faith and personal family ties but are left unanswered. But his knowing smile at the end of the film seemed to reveal a sense of peace with his choices and that is the feeling that stayed with me when I left. I felt completely at ease, relaxed and maybe even a little euphoric.
Cinema is ultimately an art form. Malick’s Tree of Life takes this idea, multiplies it tenfold and holds it aloft for the whole world to see. Trust me, you won’t find another work quite like this one.