Tuesday, 31 May 2011
The Tree of Life
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
By Alan Bacchus
Malick’s new tone poem about life, existence and our place in the universe, as many critics and this year’s Cannes Jury have attested, is Malick at his most elusive and beguiling. It’s a philosophical treatise writ large, grandiose and passionate, though for most people, including myself, not cohesive enough, both thematically and narratively, to make its point in the most effective manner. That said, The Tree of Life is at times so astonishing, it's no doubt a landmark film worthy of its attention and multiple viewings.
There’s only a wisp of a story at play here, after we see Sean Penn as Jack O’Brien, an older version of one of Brad Pitt’s sons in the present, contemplating his life as a child in the 1950s. Malick doubles back to chart the course of evolutionary history of just how Jack got to where he is and how his relationships with his rock hard father and saintly but passive mother shaped who he is today.
Malick is at his best in the first half of the picture, boldly going back, literally, to the beginning of time to show the birth of the universe, the sun, the earth, water, vegetation, (holy crap!) dinosaurs and eventually humans. These moments, which are clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are conceptually astounding and gutsy. It's Malick the philosopher wearing his heart and brain on his sleeve, forcing us to marvel at our planet and the concept of existence. Does this inform Jack's actions or thought processes in the present? Not really. But does it give the audience a sense of awe and the feeling that our waking life on earth is only a minor blip in the concept of existence as a whole? Yes.
Remarkably, Malick picks up speed with the birth of Jack and the lengthy but masterful montage sequence of moving images, which shows us the growth of Jack from a baby to a boy. This first half of the film is so brisk, it feels like one long montage sequence compressing millions of years before settling into the guts, heart and soul of the film, which is Jack’s relationship with his father. At this point, Malick has sculpted a true masterpiece.
In a rural Midwestern town in the 1950s, Malick shows Jack’s father (Pitt) as a man constantly chasing the American dream and being beaten down by the competition. But if he can’t succeed, by God his sons will. Jack and his two brothers endure tough love from Mr. O’Brien, but not necessarily in the form of physical abuse (for Malick that would be too melodramatic and expected of him). Instead, the father’s abuse is the unevenness of his love and his frustrating emotional contradictions.
In the present we can thus understand Sean Penn’s malaise, and few actors can chew and spit out malaise better than him. But with almost no words, as Malick follows Penn around his extravagant, emotionally vacant urban jungle, we understand how terribly wrong his father was.
It’s only apparent now as I formulate these thoughts how subtly Malick connects these dots. Pitt’s misguided drive for monetary success for his sons results in a wealthy but decayed, agnostic existence for Penn. Whether it’s God or belief in the spiritual power of love, this is what Penn desperately desires, and it’s why his journey takes him where he goes.
By the end, Malick takes us to a rather confounding and oblique heaven of sorts. It doesn’t quite resonate as well as it should though. The main crutch of the film is a plateau in the second half after the evolution montage, as Jack’s life as a boy spins its wheels in comparison to the awesome forward-moving narrative of the first half. Simply put, Malick spends too much time mucking around with the kids.
Malick’s imagery is typically sublime, if not, dare I say, overindulgent. If it's at all possible, he’s overkilled us with beauty, the relentless assault of beautiful images dulling us to their power.
After a dozen or so potential ‘ending shots’, the film does end, well before the two-and-half-hour mark. On anyone else’s watch these grand themes would have translated into an equally excessive running time. Though the second half and finale drag, 135 minutes might just be the right running time. As was my experience with The Thin Red Line, second and third viewings might just elevate this picture into similar ultra strata of existential cinema. But for now, a first reaction is: curiosity, awe, admiration and then a bit of exhaustion.
Tree of Life is playing in selected cities and is released theatrically in Canada by EOne Entertainment on June 10.