To say Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning fifth film is ambitious would be to make the understatement of this young 21st cinematic century. An epic, meditative exploration of life, including the meaning of it, The Tree of Life is Malick doing what he does best but on a scale even he hasn’t attempted before.
The film switches back and forth between (presumably) present day and life in 1950s suburban Texas, as Jack (Sean Penn) reminisces about his childhood growing up with an overly strict (borderline abusive) father and a permissive mother. Intercut are scenes spanning the life of the universe right back to the very beginning.
The first 20 minutes of The Tree of Life will be the tester as to whether or not this is going to be your cup of tea. Even for those who loved the film, the opening segments are pretty damn mystifying. And even though the rest of the film doesn’t exactly spell everything out for you (to say the least), as you make your way through the pretty hefty 140 minute runtime things make an inexplicable sort of sense. You may not walk away crystal clear as to what you just witnessed but it has a way of getting under your skin and sticking in your mind that you’ll feel like you understand it on a basic level, if nothing else.
It goes without saying that the film is absolutely stunning to look at. Alongside beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (reteaming with the director after The New World), Malick – with the help of the legendary visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (who hasn’t worked on a film’s visual effects since Blade Runner in 1982) – mixes practical effects seldom used these days with the necessary CGI to create some of the most awe-inspiring imagery the world of film has seen in a long time. From the bewildering sights of the universe’s creation to the subtle yet striking shots of suburban Texas, this is truly a film to be (at least first) experienced on the big screen.
The sound is also tremendously important in helping provide the at times grandiose, at other times delicate atmosphere. Not just the fitting score by the great Alexandre Desplat (who was nominated at the Oscars for another Brad Pitt movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but the sound effects which help bring Malick’s vision to vivid life.
This is only Malick’s fifth film since he started making movies way back in 1973 – that’s only five movies in 38 years: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World and now The Tree of Life. When you compare that to prolific directors such as Japan’s Takashi Miike (who has made some 50 feature films since 1991!) and Woody Allen (who makes a movie every year or two) it is quite unbelievable, especially considering how talented a filmmaker Malick is. Perhaps the reason his films feel so important and special is precisely because they are so infrequent, allowing the idea(s) to gestate and grow until they’re just right.
If this was made six years ago as was first planned then we wouldn’t be seeing Brad Pitt’s name on the poster. Names like Colin Farrell and Heath Ledger were previously attached to the project but as it turns out megastar Pitt landed the role. And while having him in there helps the marketing department tremendously, the film sees Pitt not in his movie star mode but in his “proper actor” mode (think more Babel or The Assassination of Jesse James than Ocean’s Eleven or Troy). This isn’t one of his showier roles but rather, perhaps, his most subtly effective performance yet, bringing relatability to a character that we should, by all rights, hate. Sean Penn is predictably good as Pitt’s grown up son, Jack (although Penn only appears in a few scenes), and relative unknown Jessica Chastain is especially impressive as Jack’s more empathetic and somewhat passive mother.
The Tree of Life is definitely not going to be to everyone’s taste. This is art on a big scale – the arthouse equivalent of a summer blockbuster, if you will. Some may find its vagueness and non-linear, scattered narrative too much to take. But if you like to just be with a film for as long as it takes, The Tree of Life is a must. I personally got as much out of it as I was hoping for and much, much more.
Visionary, ambitious, grandiose, haunting and often downright breathtaking, Malick’s fifth effort is arguably his finest yet, emulating the late great Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on scale and ambition. And similarly to Kubrick’s masterpiece, the film leaves you wondering (to quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) about Life, The Universe and Everything. That’s more than can be said for most films these days.