Terrence Malick’s Cannes award-winning movie is overly pretentious, yet challengingly engaging
I think I missed what most critics claim was a stunningly spectacular movie.
Directed by Terrence Malick, who brought the critically acclaimed films Badlands and Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life follows a young family in the 1950s. In particular, the life of Jack O’Brien is showcased as he faces the tribulation of growing up as the eldest son of three, with a father that is simultaneously both loving and harsh, and a gracious and loving mother.
At the Cannes Film Festival, The Tree of Life received the coveted Palme d’Or award, which is given to the director of the best feature film. A nod to Malick’s amazingly detailed film.
The cinematography was breathtaking; of that, there is no doubt. The plot riveting and compelling and the acting by Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Jessica Chastian (Mrs. O’Brien) and supporting actor Sean Penn (old Jack) were brilliant.
Newcomer Hunter McCracken (young Jack) is definitely a face to watch in the coming years, though as his character loses his innocence at a death of friend, I felt the compelling urge to smack him several times during his gloomy and antipathy mood swings – which, I suppose, is a testament to his youthful acting skills.
I’m definitely excited to see which direction McCracken will head, especially after engaging in such an emotionally charged character.
Yet despite the sparkle, the movie fell flat in my opinion.
I found it pretentious and it dawdled at a pace that added too much length to a film that could have said it all in a shorter period.
The first half failed to connect smoothly and remained disjointed in quite a few places, most noticeably in the prolonged digital feature by special effects master Douglas Trumbull (Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Trumbull artfully recreated the universe from a single beating heart and the majestic power of wildlife, to the period before the Big Bang and the destruction of dinosaurs. A work of genius, Trumbull is phenomenal in his digital crafted designs; the slightest wave of swaying tree limbs, to the breath of life from a frolicking creature.
I cannot argue that it was not brilliant, because it simply was. Trumbull is a favourite of mine and his works are on my Top 10. Despite that, I found that his magnum opus worked more against the film than with it.
If I wanted to be awed by the magnificent wonders of the world, I would sit down for a cup of tea and watch Planet Earth. I understand the artistic concept of symbolically attaching the creation of the earth to God and the power he holds but it just didn’t work. It was overly lengthy and out-of-place in an otherwise interesting film.
Through Trumbull’s digital solo, Chastian and McCracken’s voices are heard questioning the intentions of God and the purpose of life. The voice-overs does connect the movie in a manner that gives the audience a slight understanding of why the film sequence is cut the way it is cut.
The second half proved more successful, rewinding to the beginning of little Jack’s birth and the growth of the O’Brien family, before journeying through their lives of ups and downs.
Penn, who’s role as a supporting actor, focuses in on the loss of his brother, triggers the memories of what life was before the death of his younger brother. Flashbacks reveal the intricate behaviour of three rowdy brothers growing up and the delicate bond that connects them together.
Bonds between mother and son, wife and husband, father and son, and strangers to the family, are given at first a cursory glance before everything zooms into the macro.
Nevertheless, the ending was over dramatized and reminded me of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Kings where the cuts kept coming. The metaphorical symbolism attached with God and open hands was dampened by the switch of scenes and the simple fact that it kept repeating. From one cut to another cut, it was the same scene sliced together multiple times, from different angles. Idyllic and spiritual, but unnecessary.
The Tree of Life isn’t a film everyone will enjoy. Some will fall in love; others will wear quizzical looks of confusion on their faces. It’s just one of those films that viewers will either be engaged with or find restless.
It is, nevertheless, worth a watch should you have time to spare. Malick returns with a vision, though fragmented a periods, and it does come across as the movie wraps up.