TREE OF LIFE, THE
Eleven year old Jack (Hunter McCracken) is the son of Midwest couple the O'Briens (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain), and one of three brothers. As he grows up, he experiences a family tragedy and despite his mother's loving nature, an often quarrelsome, troubled home. His adult (Sean Penn) relations with his father are strained.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
You could be forgiven for thinking you'd wandered into an M. Night Shayamalan movie by mistake as Terrence Malick's latest, Festival de Cannes Palme d'Or winner unspools. The film plays like a stream of consciousness with almost every shot designed for its visual impact; there is little coherent meaning to what seems like random juxtapositions of a heaving, fire and brimstone universe, dinosaurs, an American Midwest family in the early 50s and insistent ecclesiastical music.
There is no actual story or plot, but the notes to the film from the producers give us a big clue to the filmmaker's intent: "He sees as his mother does, with the eyes of his soul..." referring to 11 year old Jack, who has the most screen time - and admirably played by newcomer McCracken. "At first all seems marvellous to the child. The picture darkens as he has his first glimpses of sickness, suffering and death. The world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth."
This may be the intention, but the execution doesn't match. There is nothing fresh or new in the idea of innocent childhood worn down and disappointed - while coming of age - by the lesser aspects of human existence. The title suggests a grand vision about humanity, but this is at best garbled and perfunctory.
I also have to rely on the notes to explain what character Sean Penn plays: he's the grown up Jack. We see him only briefly, a conflicted soul who seems not to have reconciled himself to the universe.
But Malick lays on a few extra layers: images of that unreconciled universe are supplemented by, in one memorable scene, an adult (father?) dinosaur approaching what appears to be a wounded or at least supine offspring of his species, first roughly then gently holding down his head. I take this to be the primal scream of the filmmaker, who perhaps is exorcising the demons of his relationship with his father. Or not.
But since the film's primary focus - amidst the chaos of its imagery - is Jack and how he relates to the world, it has to be a possibility. Audiences will have to work hard to figure it out for themselves, if they care to.
Is it a clue to Malick's intent when Jack asks God (in a whisper to imply he's thinking it, a vaguely irritating device used for both Jack and his mother): Why should I be good if you aren't? Good question.
In the first half an hour or so, Malick's work appears to be an image-driven atheist statement. After the death of a child and its momentous horror for the parents, we are sped into a universe with its immense power, size and nature's moral and emotive neutrality. How pitifully small, weak, inconsequential we are. What can it possibly matter that one speck of dust on another speck of dust has died?
Not so much atheist, then, more existentialist.
But this is overtaken by new ideas, each forming like clouds in fast forward until the inescapably pious Shayamalanesque and overlong end sequence, with its suggestion of life after death.
Some people seem to sit back and go with the flow, amazed and perhaps befuddled but happily so, seeing it as a masterpiece. Others are less easy going; many at the Cannes Competition screening booed the film.
Sadly (since Malick is a filmmaker whose work I respect) I am reminded of the answer Welsh poet Dylan Thomas gave when asked what accounted for him being held in such high esteem. "Confound the buggers," he replied wickedly.
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TREE OF LIFE, THE (PG)
CAST: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Kari Matchett, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going
PRODUCER: Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt,
DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick
SCRIPT: Terrence Malick
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Emmanuel Lubezki
EDITOR: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabonowitz, Daniel Rezende, Bille Weber, Mark Yosjikawa
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jack Fisk
RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 30, 2011