Saturday, 16 July 2011

FILM REVIEW: The Tree of Life

I've been putting off reviewing this film for a while, mainly because I don't really have much to say about it. I saw it last Sunday (attempting an indulgent post bbq afternoon) and almost a week later nothing has changed in the way I feel about it. In fact I have barely thought about it since then, such is the slightness of the finely spun The Tree of Life.

It's a grand concept, punctuated by a family but filmed in such an abstract way by director Terrence Malick that it's not a film you can latch onto and love straight away. I think you either have time and patience for it, or you don't, and then is the time to bow out. 

It begins with a mother (Jessica Chastain) receiving a telegram with news that her son has died. This event pulls you into the film, but it's certainly not the spearhead of the narrative. There's no story attached to it, and in all honesty it doesn't matter who has died. His death is what it is, what the film chooses to do is to try to explain it in some way, to try and understand the 'bigger picture'. That's not to say it's not dwelled upon - the mother, father (Brad Pitt) and eldest son (Sean Penn) "think about him everyday", but not in a sentimental photo albums and nostalgic trinkets way - they search for peace, forgiveness, and most importantly they search for their faith.

In trying to portray this, Malick's film suddenly descends into a long sequence of cosmic explosions, microscopic life, solar eclipses, jellyfish, waves crashing against one another, and of course - the topic of all post watch conversations - dinosaurs. It was during this point when I thought "I've heard people talk about walking out of films, but I've never really comprehended it... until now". And kept expecting David Attenborough's heavy whisper to come on at any moment.

The film is at its best when it's following family life in the 1950s: the ethereal delicate mother "who lives by grace" and the hot-tempered overbearing father "who lives by nature" and their three boisterous sons. Whilst I wasn't transported back to my own childhood, the film's naturalness was wonderful to watch. I particularly liked the relationship between Brad Pitt and his eldest son (newcomer Hunter McCracken): how deeply unhappy and unfulfilled the father is, and how angry the son is because he doesn't understand, and because his father should be stronger; better. Though nothing of any real consequence happens, this part of the film flies by with a thoughtful, very real tenderness and poignancy to it. 

What I find most disappointing from my own contextualisation is that the film's central theme doesn't play off this. It captures a moment in time, when the boys were fighting hard against who they were, what they wanted to be, and is a time capsule of memories for them later in life. But the middle son's death actually happens when he is 19 - at least 10 years later - and this period of time is not shown in the film. They remember him as this young boy from the 1950s, but it's hard to connect these two events. It's hard to feel anything, is what I'm saying.

Also, Sean Penn is utterly redundant in this. I'm not sure what it is he was supposed to do, but it's irrelevant. That was absolutely no need for him to be there. Jessica Chastain on the other hand, is perfectly believable and lovely as the wife and mother of three young boys, and then later as the grieving parent who is struggling to accept why her son has been taken from her (a son that followed her path and lived by grace, thus signifying she had a greater connection to him, than her eldest who was more like his father and lived by nature) and questioning God, the Universe, and what's it all for.

Some scenes just left me feeling slightly cold - particularly the scenes on the beach - when Malick tries to evoke something a little too personal. It reminded me a lot of Aronofsky's The Fountain (another film I did not get) but wasn't as intriguing, or interesting. I'd want to see that again, but can't muster up the same enthusiasm about The Tree Of Life.

I mean no disrespect, as it's a well-made film and it might offer something more for other people. Certainly the critics love it, but I don't want to champion something I should probably understand, and therefore any criticism will uncover my sheer ignorance. I don't think its vaporous in any way, it just wasn't for me. And with that, I shall take a dignified bow out.

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