Friday, July 1, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011) 
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken
Written & Directed By: Terrence Malick

Film critic Peter Bradshaw (of The Guardian in the U.K.) called director Terrence Malick's latest film, "cinema that's thinking big." Audiences and critics, alike, will be hard-pressed to come up with other films that are as unique and full of meaning as Malick's latest. "Thinking big" is just scratching the surface, really -- the film is thinking on a much larger plain.

The Tree of Life is a bit of an enigma -- an often puzzling, yet incredibly powerful, film that deals with love, loss, life, death, nature, spirituality and the universe in a two hour and 15 minute running time. But we would expect nothing less from Malick, the reclusive Texas director who spends years piecing together his films.

Tree of Life is without a linear narrative -- its plot not only moves into different periods in the life of its main protagonist, but also throughout the history of the world and, on a grander scale, the universe -- with long interludes of vivid cosmic and prehistoric visions.

When a friend recently asked me to describe the film, I said it was like a poem with moving images captured on celluloid. With very minimal dialogue (most of which is whispered), Malick has managed to inspire his audience to question the meaning of life and, ultimately, what our purpose is in the grand scheme of things. Because, at some point don't we all wonder: why are we here?

Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) is at a crossroads in his life. What little we know about him is glimpsed through brief images -- a seemingly broken relationship and a corporate job that is heading nowhere. His overwhelming dissatisfaction with his life sends him down memory lane to his boyhood growing up in a small Texas town. In times of personal crisis we are often reminded of the past, which Malick illustrates by sending us back in time to Jack's youth (played by Hunter McCracken). With very little use of dialogue, other than soft and questioning whispers, the audience watches young Jack interact with his family in the 1950s -- his overbearing father (Brad Pitt) who is an often frightening blend of nurture and violence, his beautiful mother (Jessica Chastain) who is the heart and soul of the family and his two younger brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).

Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)
One of the most notable highlights of the film is the performances. Considering there is very little background given on the characters and very little dialogue in which they can use to interact, the cast does a remarkable job of conveying the myriad of emotions each of them goes through in the film.

Pitt is both terrifying and gentle as Mr. O'Brien and, as a result, this may be his greatest and most mature performance to date. A stiff, conservatively traditional man, O'Brien encourages his sons to learn to fight, while tenderly embracing them in some of their quieter shared moments. This disparity in his personal nature only makes him that much more human -- a man battling his own personal demons, whatever they may be, and taking them out on his loving family.

Chastain is the real revelation of the film. Her quiet performance is full of beautifully realized moments and interactions with her co-stars. She understands Mrs. O'Brien's connection to nature and motherhood and she's mesmerizing to watch, even if all she's doing is washing the dishes or watching her sons play outside. 

Penn rounds out the adult cast as older Jack and, despite the fact that he has very few scenes, his weary eyes and hunched posture suggests a man who, like his father, is battling a darker and melancholy side of himself. The three young actors who play the O'Brien boys are all wonderful -- their performances even more remarkable for the fact that Tree of Life is the screen debut for all three of them. McCracken is the standout, with the larger role of Jack. He has a maturity rarely seen in child actors and his scenes with Eppler, who plays his brother R.L., are some of the highlights of the entire film. 

Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt)
The Tree of Life is comprised of some of the most beautifully intimate human interactions ever captured on camera. How often do audiences get to see a toddler gaze down in wonder at his newborn baby brother, only to be punched lightly in the nose by his little fist? Or the scene where Mr. O'Brien cups his newborn sons little foot between his palms, marvelling at its tiny size? There are lovely moments between parents and children -- such as when Mrs. O'Brien playfully wakes up her three sons by putting ice cubes down their pyjama shirts. Or when Mr. O'Brien shows his softer side as his son, R.L., accompanies his piano playing with that of his guitar -- a wonderful little musical moment of father-son bonding. 

One of the most striking scenes of brotherly love is the moment when a chagrined Jack apologizes to R.L. for a particularly mean trick by softly kissing his younger brothers arm -- only to have the kiss wiped off by a still-upset R.L. Jack's perseverance ultimately pays off when, after a couple more arm kisses for his younger sibling, R.L. finally doesn't wipe Jack's affection off his arm. All is forgiven. 

It's moments like those that can make film fans and critics, alike, wish there were more directors out there like Malick, who challenge the mind while providing glimpses of smaller moments that happen in everyday life.

The Tree of Life is a challenging film and won't be to everyone's own personal tastes. It will likely require more than one viewing to fully appreciate. It's spiritual and artsy, challenging mainstream ideas of what a Hollywood film could be. While there are moments and sequences within the film that may be alienating, you still leave the film appreciating Malick's complex masterpiece.