The Tree Of Life

  • Year:2010
  • Rating:PG
  • Director:Terrence Malick
  • Cast:Joanna Going, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt
  • Release Date:June 30, 2011
  • Distributor:Icon
  • Running time:138 minutes
  • Film Worth:$12.00
  • FILMINK rates movies out of $20 - the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

While beautifully shot, with no real narrative to anchor Terrence Malick’s experimental style, this ends up an incomprehensible and self-indulgent disappointment.

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When it comes to creating beautiful, artful, poetic films, writer/director Terrence Malick stands unchallenged in American cinema. With a decidedly European sensibility, but an innate understanding of his homeland's complex psyche, Malick has made himself a legend with only a handful of films (Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World). Malick's affinity for stunning, stand-alone visuals, however, is best tied to a strong story, which acts as an anchor for his on-screen flights of fancy. It's no coincidence that the weakest of his past films is the still fascinating Days Of Heaven - from an original story and script by Malick himself - which drifts slowly without the benefit of a strong, guiding narrative.

The director's latest film, The Tree Of Life, coming a mere six years (quick by Malick's standards) after his last, is sadly his weakest by far. Like the considerably superior Days Of Heaven, it is also from an original idea and script by Malick himself, bereft of any outside authorial influence. In this case, it hurts...and it hurts badly. Yes, the film picked up the coveted Palme d'Or at The Cannes Film Festival, but that could have been down to an understandable reverence for the reclusive Malick, a misplaced admiration for the film's defiant anti-commercialism or, well, a lack of decent competition.

 

The Tree Of Life is, to put it mildly, a complete shambles. A shambles from Malick is probably better than most hack directors' finest work, but that's not enough to fully excuse this confusing, self-indulgent, thematically askew and often interminably tedious work. With The Tree Of Life, Malick has certainly not made a bad film - within its big, unwieldy framework, there are kernels of beauty and meaning that are almost blinding in their richness and originality - but when measured against his admittedly small body of fine work, it undeniably rates as a bewildering, titanic disappointment.

The story at the film's centre is that of the O'Briens, a middle class family living a surface-calm life in fifties American suburbia. There are, however, many cracks in the façade. The father (the cruelly underrated Brad Pitt delivers a superb performance here that speaks once again to his subtle, prodigious gifts as an actor) is a dominating presence, with his constant demands for affection almost akin to violent blows. A frustrated musician, there's something strange and unsettling about him (though there's no suggestion of actual abuse), as he rules his home like a military martinet. His wife (the tepid Jessica Chastain), meanwhile, is a lissome, graceful but largely ineffectual presence, and an obvious favourite of their three sons, the eldest of whom, Jack (young actor Hunter McCracken in a singularly unappealing debut performance), is starting to chafe vigorously under his father's dominance.

There is no real story as such, however, with the film unfolding impressionistically scene-by-scene, with nothing definitive tying them together. There are also scenes of the adult Jack (Sean Penn is his usual commanding self, though at times he looks almost confused about what's happening around him), who has obviously been damaged by his difficult relationship with his father. Malick also shoots off into all kinds of other bizarre directions, including beautifully rendered shots of the birthing cosmos (which sit in perfect tandem with Alexandre Desplat's lush and evocative score), and even an extended sequence featuring two CGI dinosaurs. All of this reeks of so much meaning that it ironically becomes almost meaningless; whatever Malick is trying to say is clouded by so much obtuse visual trickery and disconnected storytelling that it undermines the entire film.

While it's edifying to see a true visionary like Terrence Malick given a considerable amount of money to make a film wholly true to his own vision (though a mess, The Tree Of Life has more mastery in one frame than the entire running times of most expensive Hollywood blockbusters), it's also disappointing that he's seen fit to wander off into territory that will be almost impossible for the average moviegoer to navigate. With The Tree Of Life, Malick resides largely in his own vivid imagination and overly active subconscious, where it's just too easy for everybody else to get resolutely and inescapably lost.

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