Terrence Malick is not my favourite director. Far from it, in fact. I loathed Days of Heaven and was disappointed with The New World. I did enjoy The Thin Red Line, however, to my shame I have never seen Badlands. After sitting through The Tree of Life, I’m now four for five, and it looks like I’ll never really enjoy his features.
Malick’s cinematic style, both poetic and documentary-like in feel, simply frustrates me. I’m forever aggravated that he’s shooting the wrong thing at any one moment. My girlfriend – who also isn’t a fan – described Malick’s work more succinctly than I ever could: they are like films made by the offline editor. What we have is a list of shots put together that haven’t actually gone through the online editing process to create a coherent narrative. Obviously we are in a minority here, but suffice to say if his other films annoyed you, then this is more of the same.
The Tree of Life begins in the 1950s, with a family learning of the death of their son. The father, Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is rather stoic about it whilst Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is clearly devastated. We flash forward to the present and the O’Briens’ other son Jack (Sean Penn) is now middle-aged and is clearly detached from the corporate world in which he works. The film shifts between these two timeframes, with the interior monologues of both Mrs O’Brien and Jack washing over the soundtrack, until we jump backwards in time to the creation of the Earth.
Here we have some stunning special effects that are truly magical. Admittedly, I often had no idea what I was viewing, but if you imagine what the Big Bang would have looked like intercut with amoebas doing their jelly floaty thang, then you’ll get the general gist of the imagery. The cinematography and special effects here are stunning (and are quite similar to those of The Fountain, a film I’ll come back to later) and whilst it feels a bit like an Imax documentary, I enjoyed this cinematic passage. Plus, any film that features dinosaurs is instantly better than a film without dinosaurs, right?
I was under the impression that this journey through time would continue, but The Tree of Life returns to the O’Briens reasonably quickly and then follows the life of young Jack. Mainly concerned with his strained relationship with his father, the film is effectively a tonne of vignettes that promote a mood, rather than a traditional narrative. One thing I must say for Malick: he gets great performances from his actors. Both Pitt and Chastain are fantastic, as are all the kids. The documentary feel of proceedings means that we never sense we’re watching performers.
Basically however, the film is pretentious, overblown and overlong, and quite frankly I’m annoyed that this has received glowing reviews whilst Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain was dismissed as a pompous misfire. The films have a lot in common – both are meditations on life, concerned with the acceptance of mortality and are set in multiple timeframes – though The Fountain was emotive and captivating whilst this movie was a cinematic ordeal of marathon proportions.
The Tree of Life is a bloated, ostentatious film that squanders its potential by being unfocussed and disjointed. The narrative never gets around to addressing the film’s opening events, and the prehistoric segments feel like scenes from ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ scooped off the cutting room floor. If you love Malick’s unique cinematic style, then this film will be right up your alley. If – like me – you don’t, then you might agree that Thor‘s depiction of Yggdrasil was much more interesting than the cosmic tree alluded to here.Rating: