Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is dead at the roots
Malick's latest is full of visions, and music, and signifies nothing

Director & Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain & Sean Penn
Plot: A man looks back on his life as he sits disillusioned in the modern day. He ponders the origins of the universe, the existence of God and his upbringing in 50s suburbia, particularly his complex relationship with his father and his close relationship with his mother.

I believe in one simple golden rule for a film, particularly in an era where I have to pay £8 or more for a ticket: I should only have to see a film once. I give the director my money and my time and they have one shot across however long they wish to grip me and make their point. I may choose to see the film again, but if, on the first attempt, I am left baffled and unentertained, then the golden rule has been broken.

In the deeply disappointing “The Tree of Life”, Terrence Malick doesn’t just break this rule: he flouts it with abandon. This is not a film. It is a Herculean exercise in navel-gazing with neither story nor insight to speak of. Though it is beautifully shot and accompanied by much beautiful music, this is little more than a slideshow given by an invisible and silent man.

“The Tree of Life” ponders (and, dear God, how it ponders!) the origins and meaning of life. It features a character, Jack, played by Sean Penn as an adult and Hunter McCracken as a child, the eldest of three brothers in a fairly typical, and fairly troubled 1950s family. He has a close relationship with his optimistic mother (Jessica Chastain) and a difficult relationship with his overbearing father (Brad Pitt).

Jessica Chastain gives the standout performance
The film, however, is fragmentary, lengthy, dull and slumber-inducing. Individual sections vary greatly in length, but all have this same string-of-clips style which is not at all involving.

The most notable sequence is the birth of the universe through to the extinction of the dinosaurs, which, whilst beautiful (excellent cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki being ever-present, and decent “Wonders of the Universe” style special effects combining well with that here) is crying out for a David Attenborough narration, and some kind of point to come out of it.

The longest section considers the family in the fifties. Jack is followed from the beginning of his life through childhood and into early adolescence, and the heart of the section is the character’s relationship with his father. This section lasts for over an hour and is impenetrable. As Brad Pitt’s character is given no real depth beyond that of his capricious mood swings, the central child seems to spend most of his time being upset that he’s not the centre of attention anymore and getting gradually more and more psychotic in a manner which is somewhat bemusing.

And, when all the sections are through, you are left with a sense of weariness, boredom and bewilderment. What is Malick trying to say? Is there anything more to this than simply the pretty slideshows and uninvolving snippets of a family drama? The film ultimately seems to be empty, and a waste of time. For all of the beautiful craft, and a stand-out performance from Chastain, “The Tree of Life” is dead at the roots.

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