Tuesday, 17 May 2011
CANNES 2011 - The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life (2011) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain
By Blair Stewart
With his fifth feature, Terrence Malick doesn't necessarily need to make another film after The Tree of Life. In gestation for decades, it’s his Apocalypse Now, his Ran, his Once Upon a Time in the America. There is a hugeness about it, as Malick has crafted a work about life, the afterlife and all known creation that boomingly expresses his philosophies and elements of his childhood. The Big Bang (or Genesis) is painstakingly re-enacted from the first pop to forms of interlacing DNA with the consultation of Douglas Trumbull, which gives the film a 2001 star sequence quality. I should mention that the birth of the universe through to evolutionary bloom occurs in the 2nd reel. What could a director possibly do afterwards to top that?
Tree is an unabashedly spiritual experience that irked my inner Agnostic. And yet, overlooking the predictability of whispering voice-over as hands brush past rock and weed as we'd expect from Malick, the film's scope was quite humbling – a one-second shot of a supernova is still pestering me hours later. Just about every thistle in existence is preciously filmed, as Malick and returning New World cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki tilt the image upwards to turn an oak orchard, crevasse or Brad Pitt into iconography. The film is mostly a multimillion-dollar home movie for the director and merges into a dense narrative successor to Godfrey Reggio's QATSI series.
The more recent planetary-bound story is split between little Jack O'Brien's (Hunter McKraken) Texas childhood with his father (Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), embodying combustible nature and gracefulness, and the cross-cutting of the grown Jack (Sean Penn) and his alienation within cityscapes. Pitt is the featured star, but his role is more of a presence than a performance, a figure of mythical proportions in the household to his children as their saintly mother (Jessica Chastain) is in tune with their nature. The Tree of Life might plumb overwrought moments of golden-era 50s innocence, but the brief sparks of transcendence (kids shadows at play shot with an upside-down camera, Pitt's mute reaction to an unpleasant phone call, the fog of pesticide, Saturn) act as a counter-measure to occasional sappiness.
My star rating is a smokescreen. The Tree of Life could be four stars next week or one. I'm baffled by its leaps in logic and scenario, as Malick's impatient cinematic language is spoken quickly. I'm only certain that it is worth seeing. And my head is throbbing right now.