Review: The Tree of Life (12) / Directed by: Terrence Malick / Written by: Terrence Malick / Starring: Brad Pit, Sean Penn, Caro Lenssen, Jessica Chastain / Released: Out Now
The Tree of Life is a disappointment, perhaps one of the biggest disappointments of the last ten years. I have greatly enjoyed Terrence Malick’s previous work, even the underrated The New World but I can see where his detractors have a point. His films often lack focus and a coherent narrative in favour of philosophical musings and dialogue that would be better served by a novel. In The Thin Red Line, the philosophy and subtext is part of the film, we follow several soldiers each of whom have a journey but the metaphysical aspects are a part of the organic whole and never feel at odds with the rest of the film. Same goes for The New World, there is a lot going on under the surface (and many have said it’s basically a feature length nature documentary) of what is essentially a love story spanning several years and Malick never loses sight of this. With The Tree of Life, Malick has essentially gone in the opposite direction. What little plot there is becomes completely overwhelmed by the philosophy and pretentiousness despite some very beautiful cinematography.
The film begins with Brad Pitt’s Mr O’Brien and Jessica Chastain’s Mrs O’Brien receiving horrible news that their 19 year old son had been killed in war. They both grieve in their own way, Mr O’Brien being stoic and strong and Mrs O’Brien essentially breaking down and receiving comfort from the neighbours. During this time we also meet Sean Penn as an adult version of a child we will meet later. Penn works in a city surrounded by monuments of glass and steel. The film then completely changes tack and goes back to portray the big bang which lead to the birth of the universe. It then focuses on planet earth and how it developed from a bubbling mass of molten lava into the lush green world it became. We then see single cells form and evolve in the water giving birth to life, then follows dinosaurs, then the meteor that ended their reign. We go forward in time again to Texas in the 1950’s and Mr and Mrs O’Brien as a happy young couple giving birth to their first child Jack. Two other children follow and a collection of scenes show their upbringing via two very different parents. Mr O’Brien is a strict parent, he loves his kids but teaches them to be strong and merciless if they want to get anywhere in life. He is a parent full of regret for a life he never lived and a path he didn’t follow and does not want his children to make the same mistake. Mrs O’Brien is a graceful and beautiful woman full of life and optimism, she instils in her children the ability to love and cherish each other as well as the beauty of nature. As the film goes on we learn that Sean Penn is playing the adult version of Jack and is perhaps looking back on his upbringing as he faces his own mortality.
The Tree of Life is an incredibly frustrating film, the segment set in the 1950’s constantly threatens to leap into life and tell a whimsical, life affirming tale of growing up during a very optimistic era in history but it never fully commits. The kids do an outstanding job but none of them ever really has any dialogue or time to shine as brightly as they should. Malick portrays brilliantly scenes of childhood wonder where you smash your first window of an abandoned shack or when you go for a swim in the local pond. He also portrays convincingly frightening events like your first experiences with death and disfigurement. These scenes are lovingly photographed and shot but never are injected with the pathos needed because Malick is too obsessed with his voice overs and philosophy. Ultimately the actor who comes off best in the film is Brad Pitt. It’s another brilliant performance from the man who is undoubtedly one of our best actors working today, Mr O’Brien is full of sadness and love for his family but being the stoic proud type he is never allowed to show emotions the way his wife does. Pitt does a lot with just a look at the kid actors that conveys a world of inner turmoil and regret. Sean Penn publicly poo pooed the film in August and watching this and his appearance in it, it’s easy to see why. I don’t think a single line of Penn’s dialogue was audible throughout the whole time he was on screen and his appearance seems pointless. He mopes around his apartment or office building and then wanders around aimlessly on a beach for a bit and as a result you feel completely indifferent towards this when I’m sure the intention was for this to make emotional sense with the context set out by the 1950’s scenes. Due to Malick constantly choosing style over substance you never feel anything beyond the aesthetics during the film and during supposedly great metaphysical drama come the climax the feeling you’re left with is bewilderment. Penn said in the interview in which he slated the film that it was ‘the most magnificent script I ever read’ and there is apparently a five hour cut in existence. This may be one of those occasions when the longer cut is something that addresses the deficiencies of the film because you can see the beginnings of a masterpiece in there somewhere.
In order to carry out his ambitious depiction of the beginnings of life, Malick went back to effects wiz of old Douglas Trumbull and these dialogue free scenes are the best that The Tree of Life has to offer. When the dinosaurs appear is when it all goes wrong. For a film with a budget of over 30 million dollars, these dinosaurs are very poorly rendered. They never stick out from Malick’s lushly captured landscapes but they are no better than effects in something like TV series Primeval. Again even the birth of the universe and life emerging from the swamp scenes feel compromised in this version of the film. We go from jellyfish to dinosaurs very quickly and it feels like a large chunk is missing from this sequence. We also never get the first apes evolving into men or learning to use tools and fire, or crucially - feel love. For a film called ‘The Tree of Life’ it sure does miss a lot out.
Like most of Malick’s work the film looks magnificent (apart from the dinosaurs). Brilliant cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and incredible sound design and music by Alexandre Desplat go some way towards ensuring the film is not an out and out loss. Curiously for a film that looks this good there was no IMAX version which is originally what the plan was I think, and probably the best way to enjoy the film.
The film that The Tree of Life most resembles is David Lynch’s Inland Empire in that it’s a film completely unfiltered and absolutely a product of the director no matter how obtuse it chooses to be. Directorial freedom is a great and rare thing these days but perhaps not always for the best. You can’t help thinking that with better advice and a better editor, Malick would have produced his best film here. Sadly what we have for the time being represents the biggest disappointment of the directors’ career and a seriously compromised creation that is only suitable for the most serious of art house enthusiasts.