Directed by Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick’s sixth film in forty-two years! But is it actually any good?
The Tree of Life follows Jack (Sean Penn old, Hunter McCracken young) through his existence in his smalltown America past and big-fish skyscrapery present. His father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) lead him through his youth with their own separate ways of parenting; you can either follow the way of Grace, or the way of Nature.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Tree of Life is the most beautifully, artistically resonant shot and edited film of the year. The treasure trove of indescribable information on display in every frame is staggering; Malick is obviously a master of the medium. It’s also his downfall.
There are no ‘scenes’, at least in the conventional sense, in the film’s two-hour plus run time. There are only sequences; every part of these character’s lives coalesce into the other, which is effective in sentiment but wholly disengaging in the sense of pace. Now, such a structure (or lack of) isn’t a bad thing. If anything, narrative is poison when it comes to a lot of directing: exposition can also be a good thing, if dealt with artistically. Annoyingly, there is nothing to pin my emotions on here: I see image after sumptous image, but do I care?
The most ingratiating aspect Malick has deployed in this sense are the voiceovers. Oh, the voiceovers. These uber-pretentious ramblings in hushed tones litter the film, providing neither narrative clarity or meaning to anything that’s actually going on. The film also gets undeniably preachy toward the end, which is discomforting for those with any real sense of the absurdity of religion. It’s a shame to see such a talented filmmaker waste his time. However, despite its pro-faith outlook, there is a highly brave sequence that makes its memorable mark roughly twenty minutes in: we witness the birth of stars, the earth, and the reign of dinosaurs. Unbelievably gorgeous, it’s the real feat here, and to pop it into what would be practically a family drama in anyone else’s hands is visionary.
And that’s where Malick really makes a connection, if any. I actually became bored halfway through, unfortunately; but what I did take away with me was that we’re all in this universe together, and we’re only here for a fraction of a second. In showing us our own insignificance – yet also our simultaneous importance – is where The Tree of Life succeeds. This type of film takes balls.