Malick's latest lives up to the hype
It’s safe to say that The Tree of Life is a film whose reputation precedes it. The picture’s lengthy development process is only paralleled by its ambitious scope, which stretches from the origin of the universe through an ultra postmodern present. Its celebrated premiere at Cannes last month earned it a coveted Palme d’Or win. As a result, critics and scholars alike have descended on The Tree of Life in a frenzy, churning out polarized pieces that illustrate the extent to which director Terrence Malick’s latest offering both inspires and confounds its viewers.
On the surface, the film follows the struggles of a 1950s family through the experiences of the oldest son, Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken as a child, and Penn as an adult). But a superficial description of The Tree of Life’s non–linear narrative hardly does it justice. At its heart, the movie is a poetic meditation on the meaning of life and the struggle to understand one’s role in the grander scheme of the universe.
It’s to Malick’s credit that he grasps the weight of such ontological questions and the frustrating impossibility of finding satisfying answers. Consequently, The Tree of Life is peppered with numerous omissions that quickly prove maddening. By way of example, the film opens with Jack’s parents (Pitt and Chastain) learning of the death of Jack’s younger brother — yet in the nearly two–and–a–half hours that follow, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s names are never revealed, nor do audiences ever learn the cause of their son’s death. In the hands of a lesser director, such elusiveness would be damning; with Malick, it’s disorienting while still effective.
The film’s camerawork is equally bewildering yet stirring. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki crafts breathtakingly crisp images that are all the more striking because the camera never ceases moving. His shots are punctuated by stunningly realistic CGI sequences depicting the beginnings of the cosmos and prehistoric Earth.
But the true standouts would have to be film’s actors, who portray the family’s inner turmoil with little–to–no dialogue. Pitt brings a surprising amount of nuance to his role as the family’s stern disciplinarian. His formidable presence is gracefully countered by Chastain, the film’s emotional center. In between the two is McCracken, who superbly evokes the restlessness of youth despite rarely speaking.
At points, The Tree of Life’s grandiosity is certainly its Achilles heel; most particularly, the film’s sweeping exploration concludes with an unsatisfying climax. But it is precisely that same magnificence which sets the movie apart and makes it worth a trip to the Ritz.
The Tree of Life
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
PG–13, 138 min.