This isn’t an easy watch but is all the better for that, I reckon. If you sometimes get sick of watching endless formulaic films e.g. wacky comedy, rom com, shlock horror, earnest thriller etc and want to see a film where you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next, you might like this.
Tree of Life aims high in that it tries to tackle important questions about life such as whether we are completely at the mercy of nature or whether we can choose to act with ‘grace’. Brad Pitt‘s domineering father character represents the tough, sometimes cruel or violent force of nature; Jessica Chastain shows the opposing force of grace. Most of the film is about these characters and their three young sons. Those sequences are brilliantly played and filmed and really draw you in. There’s no melodrama, this is not a TV soap; most of the events are small and everyday but they ring true because of that. I’ve heard the film criticised for being slow but what do those critics want; a car chase, a bank heist, a sordid affair? It moves at a pace which feels true to life and actually, I never once found it to be slow.
Other segments of the film feature Sean Penn as the eldest son, now grown up. For me that’s the weaker point; I didn’t even twig that that’s who he was until the very end as he looks completely unlike the child actor. Also there’s a long sequence of apparently random shots of the natural world which is reminded me of scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s even a scene with CGI dinosaurs; off the wall or what?! The aim of these scenes is to show the constant tension between nature and grace. For me, the trick is to resist shouting ‘what the hell is this all about!’ and getting annoyed that those scenes seem to take us away from the main storyline. Just go with it; enjoy the beauty of them (they’re breathtaking!) and see if it makes sense at the end.
For my money writer/director Terrence Malick has done an amazing job and I just wish more films were this challenging and ambitious. Other people will no doubt call it overblown and pretentious. They’re wrong. Sorry.
If I have to think of some criticism I’d have to say that I thought the emotional climax (where lots of characters meet up on a beach) was the least emotionally affecting scene of the film which slightly took the edge off the brilliance. Also, I wan’t quite sure if Malick was trying to say that acting with ‘grace’ is a good thing or whether it leads to our destruction (we see the dinosaurs wiped out and the earth destroyed shortly after acts of grace are carried out) but then I guess a writer of Malick’s quality isn’t really seeking to give pat answers but just to get us thinking about stuff.
Got to end on another positive; the acting is superb all round but the child actors are completely brilliant especially Hunter McCracken as young Jack. That alone is worth the ticket money, but there’s much more besides to make this a really great film. Unless a bank heist is more up your street.