Tuesday 26 July 2011

Review: Tree of Life

Year: 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

Synopsis is here

Tree of life is not a movie.Not in the conventional sense anyway. A friend of mine went to see it and absolutely hated it* and I can fully appreciate and understand why. I did wonder why she went to see it in the first place. She has a distinct dislike for most art house films and has found herself burned on many occasions due to having one of those fancy pants view as much as you want cards. My argument to that is if your allergic to shellfish, then it's best to avoid the prawns even if it is all you can eat.

I digress and so does Tree of Life which is an epic, sprawling mosaic of a film, fuelled by an ambition that many would like to see again in more modern movies. It wants to ask the big questions and does so with a boldness that has reminded many of Kubrick's 2001. Nature versus nurture, loss, grief, disappointment in father figures, disappointment in living up to father figures, the search of god, the search for meaning, all of this is placed on the backdrop of the very creation of life itself. This is deployed with a fractured, non-liner narrative fuelled with expressionistic close-ups and rhythmic jump cuts.

The outcome of this is a film likened more to an art installation more than anything else. It's also a big ask of the audience to follow Malick down the rabbit hole, as the film is executed in such a way it demands you to make your own assumptions about what you see. The first impression is likely to be one of pretension. With everything the film wishes to say, its whispered word narration which questions the whereabouts of God (the film also starts with a biblical quote from Job) and it's classical music soundtrack. While grandstanding I didn't feel that the ideas put forth were above it's station so to speak. The film has an earnestness that is so hard to come by. The childhood scenes invoke those memories of identity and that trying to figure everything out that every child goes through. The moment we discover that Jack's brother has died** instead of drawn out overwrought scenes of pain that we see in many movies (see say Mystic River) we see the disjointed response that is remembered and considered through memory. What makes these scene work for me is how they call upon my own memories of family and loss. There's something in the film's combination of visuals and music that managed to tap into something within my own psyche and burrowed itself under my skin. Mr O' Brian (a subdued yet commanding performance by Pitt) has elements that mirror my own father to such a point it's frightening while Jessica Chastain's angelic Mrs O'Brien is filmed in a way which reminds me of how I view my grandmother. There's a personal and emotional resonance that comes with the film that effected me deeply. I strongest suspect that not everyone will feel this and I also don't believe everyone will want it either, but all in all it is that aspect that drove the film home for me.

Reviews for Tree of Life have been using the words hymn, operatic and symphony to describe it and that alone should help a doubting viewer decided on if it is the film for them. This isn't a film that entertains and that will put off many who may have paid money to see the new Brad Pitt movie. The fragmented collection of images are more like a piece of music than any typical movie we usually see. I fully understand why some will hate it, more than any other film but for me generates an unbelievably personal response and I also believe it won't be the same for everyone. The film is at times unbelievably grandstanding, and at times a much of a muchness. It meanders and anyone who mostly watches more Hollywood based affair will probably be driven mad with it's construction.

I however found the film deeply involving and visually sublime (I can't think of another film that looks this good), the film performances are brilliant (although one may ask Sean Penn...why exactly?) the big questions are asked with earnestness and honestly and those who are willing to give it time and space and allow the film to wash over you (pompous I know) may find themselves being effected by it in some way. An art film in the purest form I found The Tree of Life an absorbing artistic statement

*She only saw one third of the film due to a tech error so her opinion is void
**We find this out early and is the main drive for the film's "plot"