Terrence Malick is a polarising director. Initially making a staggering debut with Badlands, his follow-up Days of Heaven lead to a 20 year break before The Thin Red Line announced his return to working behind the camera. His films split critics more regularly than any other as he seems to walk the line between pretentious, artistic, genius and self-indulgence. The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, follows a family through a split-narrative set in the 1950s, the 1960s and modern day and discusses the difference between following a life of grace and a life of nature and the ‘Tree of Life’ that unites nature, Heaven, Hell and all life.
To give a brief synopsis of everything that The Tree of Life has to offer is almost impossible, but for the sections of the film that follow a more traditional narrative structure, the story follows the O’Brien family in the US. In modern day Jack (Penn) sees a tree being planted outside a building that he had some part in designing. Clearly adrift, it reminds him of his childhood with a domineering father (Pitt) and his caring mother (Chastain). Key moments in Jack and his two brothers lives are shown, including adolescence, rebellion and the formation of a value system, which all lead to the unfortunate event that begins the film.
The film-making field has created a host of cynical film reviewers who look at obvious manipulation and find it easy to sneer at over-sentimentality in films, War Horse being a prime example. True film-makers, and I do not mean your Michael Bay’s, but auteurs who care passionately about film and want to tell a story in their own unique way find a way of addressing tough subjects. Terrence Malick is one such director and Tree of Life is one such film. It deals with the effect of the loss of a child to a family and somehow frames it whithin a sweeping thesis on huge topics like spirituality and the beauty of life. By doing this both director and film open themselves up to criticism of the highest order.
The Tree of Life is overlong, pretentious to the point of being farcical in parts and frustratingly naive in its narrative storytelling. There are moments in the cripplingly dull opening scenes where the camera leers away from the action, and the voiceover fades in and out as if the director wants you to look at a leaf instead of paying attention to the story. Like the infamous carrier bag scene in American Beauty, it is easy to sneer and poke fun at such ridiculously self-indulgent nonsense. Then the film moves to a segment about the birth of creation, and things really take a turn for the bizarre.
We follow the big bang, through creation of stars and planets, using special effects reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey even inanely focusing on the birth of a moral code in dinosaurs. Within a feature film it’s almost too much to bear as the narrative is forgotten entirely and it really has no place in the structure of the story. Beautiful and stirring though it is, with its bombastic classical score rifling away, it’s more an art exhibition than a film. However, and I say this with complete awareness that it shouldn’t work, it does engage with you somehow. There is something inanely wonderful about the idea of creation and the early formation of civilization and life that before you know it, you’re hooked on what Malick might do next. Luckily, we move swiftly on to a more traditional narrative, which is where The Tree of Life really comes into its own.
The casting of Pitt, playing against type as an authoritarian father who considers his own life a failure and Chastain as an almost angel-like mother trying to instill a sense of wonder in her children is wonderful and both probably deserve the Oscar nomination for this performance rather than their roles in Moneyball and The Help. The action follows the children (none of whom are annoying or irritating as child actors can be) through their early lives and is reminiscent of Stand by Me. Even Sean Penn, who can sometimes be an overbearing presence on a film has his parts restricted and is perfectly acceptable as an adult version of eldest son Jack. It is such a disappointment then, that The Tree of Life insists on having the less narrative elements, because these bookends really distarct from the fantastic storytelling and superb direction.
In the end, The Tree of Life is probably just as much a fail as a staggering work of genius. I’ve never encountered a film that annoyed as much as it inspired, and had me torn between one star and five stars. It deserves recognition, which is received with an Oscar nomination, because in a world of film that regularly churns out mindless dross like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and I Don’t Know How She Does It, a film of such incredible bravery both visually and structurally should be applauded.