Friday, July 1, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011) 
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken
Written & Directed By: Terrence Malick

Film critic Peter Bradshaw (of The Guardian in the U.K.) called director Terrence Malick's latest film, "cinema that's thinking big." Audiences and critics, alike, will be hard-pressed to come up with other films that are as unique and full of meaning as Malick's latest. "Thinking big" is just scratching the surface, really -- the film is thinking on a much larger plain.

The Tree of Life is a bit of an enigma -- an often puzzling, yet incredibly powerful, film that deals with love, loss, life, death, nature, spirituality and the universe in a two hour and 15 minute running time. But we would expect nothing less from Malick, the reclusive Texas director who spends years piecing together his films.

Tree of Life is without a linear narrative -- its plot not only moves into different periods in the life of its main protagonist, but also throughout the history of the world and, on a grander scale, the universe -- with long interludes of vivid cosmic and prehistoric visions.

When a friend recently asked me to describe the film, I said it was like a poem with moving images captured on celluloid. With very minimal dialogue (most of which is whispered), Malick has managed to inspire his audience to question the meaning of life and, ultimately, what our purpose is in the grand scheme of things. Because, at some point don't we all wonder: why are we here?

Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) is at a crossroads in his life. What little we know about him is glimpsed through brief images -- a seemingly broken relationship and a corporate job that is heading nowhere. His overwhelming dissatisfaction with his life sends him down memory lane to his boyhood growing up in a small Texas town. In times of personal crisis we are often reminded of the past, which Malick illustrates by sending us back in time to Jack's youth (played by Hunter McCracken). With very little use of dialogue, other than soft and questioning whispers, the audience watches young Jack interact with his family in the 1950s -- his overbearing father (Brad Pitt) who is an often frightening blend of nurture and violence, his beautiful mother (Jessica Chastain) who is the heart and soul of the family and his two younger brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).

Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)
One of the most notable highlights of the film is the performances. Considering there is very little background given on the characters and very little dialogue in which they can use to interact, the cast does a remarkable job of conveying the myriad of emotions each of them goes through in the film.

Pitt is both terrifying and gentle as Mr. O'Brien and, as a result, this may be his greatest and most mature performance to date. A stiff, conservatively traditional man, O'Brien encourages his sons to learn to fight, while tenderly embracing them in some of their quieter shared moments. This disparity in his personal nature only makes him that much more human -- a man battling his own personal demons, whatever they may be, and taking them out on his loving family.

Chastain is the real revelation of the film. Her quiet performance is full of beautifully realized moments and interactions with her co-stars. She understands Mrs. O'Brien's connection to nature and motherhood and she's mesmerizing to watch, even if all she's doing is washing the dishes or watching her sons play outside. 

Penn rounds out the adult cast as older Jack and, despite the fact that he has very few scenes, his weary eyes and hunched posture suggests a man who, like his father, is battling a darker and melancholy side of himself. The three young actors who play the O'Brien boys are all wonderful -- their performances even more remarkable for the fact that Tree of Life is the screen debut for all three of them. McCracken is the standout, with the larger role of Jack. He has a maturity rarely seen in child actors and his scenes with Eppler, who plays his brother R.L., are some of the highlights of the entire film. 

Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt)
The Tree of Life is comprised of some of the most beautifully intimate human interactions ever captured on camera. How often do audiences get to see a toddler gaze down in wonder at his newborn baby brother, only to be punched lightly in the nose by his little fist? Or the scene where Mr. O'Brien cups his newborn sons little foot between his palms, marvelling at its tiny size? There are lovely moments between parents and children -- such as when Mrs. O'Brien playfully wakes up her three sons by putting ice cubes down their pyjama shirts. Or when Mr. O'Brien shows his softer side as his son, R.L., accompanies his piano playing with that of his guitar -- a wonderful little musical moment of father-son bonding. 

One of the most striking scenes of brotherly love is the moment when a chagrined Jack apologizes to R.L. for a particularly mean trick by softly kissing his younger brothers arm -- only to have the kiss wiped off by a still-upset R.L. Jack's perseverance ultimately pays off when, after a couple more arm kisses for his younger sibling, R.L. finally doesn't wipe Jack's affection off his arm. All is forgiven. 

It's moments like those that can make film fans and critics, alike, wish there were more directors out there like Malick, who challenge the mind while providing glimpses of smaller moments that happen in everyday life.

The Tree of Life is a challenging film and won't be to everyone's own personal tastes. It will likely require more than one viewing to fully appreciate. It's spiritual and artsy, challenging mainstream ideas of what a Hollywood film could be. While there are moments and sequences within the film that may be alienating, you still leave the film appreciating Malick's complex masterpiece. 



  1. Ooooooooo an A-! Must be good then! Am really waiting on this one with abated breath as I'm both a Malick and Penm fan.
    Malick is just a visually beautiful film maker and he is an example of one who suffers from a lack of funds, and hence a lack of ability to get projects off the ground. Hence he just can't make enough fims as mainstream Hollywood hogs the limelight and controls the money strings. It is a serious problem for small time directors who have to scrimp and save to even have a chance of making on film anymore. It is not a good situation as many fine directors just give up and go home.
    I'm absolutely adamant that any film aficianado MUST see films like this or else all the indie stuff will be be swallowed up by the 'blockbuster' and we will subjected to The Green Lantern and Transformers as the only theatre options each week. That is not a world I'd want to live in!

  2. It was ...but definitely not to everyone's tastes. There will be some people who will loathe it. There were walk-outs at the screening I went to. Some of it went over my head but I was still thinking about it two days after seeing it ...a sign of a good movie. So I gave it an A- based on that! :)

    Malick would never work as a more mainstream director. This film was definitely his most "alienating" in the sense that I think a lot of people will be thrown by how spiritual and ...slow is. I think a lot of studios also get a little frustrated with his work ethic ...he filmed this movie about two years ago and it's only being released now! haha. I love when directors work against the grain and don't cater to studios.

    Yes. Agreed. Whether people like The Tree of Life or not should be seen! When is out in New Zealand?

  3. Not sure when it is released here. Release dates around the world are so varied. For instance Kungfu Panda 2 has beem played almost world wide and yet it is only this week it will be here. And yet at other times we see movies well before the rest of the world.
    Walks out huh! I can honestly say in 40 years I've never done that no matter how bad the film!
    Agreed Malick is his own man and doesn't go the studio route. I like that as we the audience get 'his' film and not the studios. Malick films do tend to be slow though. The Thin Red Line wasn't a fast paced film, but I don't mind that if it is backed up with qality.
    This bio of Hitch I'm reading ( and within sight of finally finishing ), is riddled with interference from the studios. It is fascinating as several Hitch films can hardly be credited to him as the likes of David Selznik interfered so much they ceased to be Hitch films at all. The lodger, The Paradine Case, and Rebecca are films that could have been great if the studios had kept out of it!
    We need more directors like this as they cater for an audience that doesn't want movies from the never ending production line of mainstream Hollywood. I do shudder to think what cinema would be like without indie film/directors!

  4. I saw this film a few days ago at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and I found it very much interesting.

    The performances were utterly fantastic, though I feel Sean Penn was rather underused.

    The cinematography? Superb. The camera angles, visual effects and colour balancing were incredible to witness. Some of the edits and cuts were somewhat awkward, but being that this IS a montage film it makes some sense.

    However, my main problem with this movie is its running time- the movie seemed to drag along VERY slowly, and I'll admit I was really looking forward to getting out of the theatre. Some parts came across as somewhat redundant to me, especially when taking into account the message of the movie seems somewhat simple (executed beautifully, mind you).

    Overall, I was infuriated by it when I first watched it, finding it very much hard to comprehend and very long. However, I definitely appreciate its merit, especially the moral behind the movie as well as its cinematography. It was enlightening to watch as a person interested in filmmaking.

    It came across as pretentiously drawn out at points, but hey. Wasn't 2001 as well?

  5. @BRENT: I still haven't seen The Thin Red Line all the way through, but it's definitely on my list. I LOVED The New World although I know it wasn't everyone's cup of tea.

    Directors and actors both struggled in the old Hollywood studio system. They had generic scripts written by mediocre writers and were rarely changed, even if the director or actor had a brilliant vision for it. Very frustrating, I'm sure.

  6. @Alex: I would have loved to have see it at the Lightbox! Lucky you! :) Yeah, a lot of the film felt like a bunch of vignettes put together, so I agree that some of the cuts were really jarring ...especially going from the O'Brien family to dinosaurs.

    I completely understand where you are coming from! I shared a lot of those feelings while watching it ...frustration at it's length and pace being the main one. But, as you said, it was all still beautifully executed so I felt I couldn't stay mad at it for long. I appreciated the fact that it was a film that was actually asking its audience to think outside the box ...a rarity in Hollywood films.

    You make a really good point when you say: "It was enlightening to watch as a person interested in filmmkaing." I also feel like it's a movie that should be seen by film fans and, whether they loved it or loathed it is another matter long as they see it and discuss it.

    What grade would you have given The Tree of Life if you were reviewing it (or have you reviewed it)?

  7. Hmm, I'd say from B+ to A-.

    You're right on it being a "challenging" film; I haven't probably seen as many art movies as you have, and so I feel it overwhelmed me when I watched it. And I still felt it over-long.

    However, when it was great it really was great, so I'd say an A- is about right for it.

  8. Yeah, I was debating over B+ and A- myself. And I agree that it was rather long. This was definitely his most challenging and artsy film, though.