Review: The Tree Of Life


Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by:Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
Released: June 30, 2011
Grade: B-

Terrence Malick.  Hearing that name in any sentence fills me with intrigue.  It’s not because he’s one of the world’s most highly regarded directors (having made The Thin Red Line, Days Of Heaven and Badlands).  Rather, it’s because he’s such a recluse.  He doesn’t turn up at premieres, he doesn’t turn up on talk shows and he doesn’t turn up at award ceremonies.  His last public interview was in 1973.

I’ve heard that he’s shy but perhaps it’s part of a grand plan.  A friend summed it up best when he said “privacy is the new celebrity”.  Knowing so little about Malick only heightens our interest in his movies.  When you throw in the fact that he filmed The Tree Of Life in 2008 and then spent close to three years in the editing room, it’s no surprise that the buzz was electric when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month.

It’s at this point of the review that I need to throw out a warning.  Yes, the film won the top prize at Cannes and yes, the film stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  HOWEVER, do not under any circumstances think that this is a movie for the mainstream public.  Many will be dissatisfied because (1) there is no coherent plot, and (2) Brad Pitt couldn’t be any less sexy.  I hope cinemas are adopting a “no refunds” policy or else there could be a sudden rush to the exit at about the 30 minute mark.

I saw The Tree Of Life with two learned friends and we debated it for a solid hour afterwards over dinner.  This statement alone makes it a very unique film-going experience.  How often does a movie come along with the power to generate so much discussion?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion but for what it’s worth (and it may not be much), let me add my two cents through this review.  The Tree Of Life is a film without a traditional narrative.  Instead of telling us a conventional story, Malick has provided a series of fragmented scenes to leave us reflecting on our life, our own loves and our own stories.

We are prompted through striking imagery, a beautiful soundtrack and strong religious overtones.  There’s one lengthy sequence where we go back to the beginning of time and see how the world was created.  Not a single word is spoken during this part – it’s just music and visuals.  There are other scenes shot in a modern day setting that show a middle aged man (Penn) looking lost as he goes about the monotony of his daily routine.

The crux of the film is set in 1950s Texas and loosely centres on a boy (McCracken) growing up under the guidance of his strict father (Pitt) and his nurturing mother (Chastain).  There are moments when he rebels against his parents and gets into trouble.  There are other moments where he shows a softer side and is there to support his two younger brothers.

Whilst it’s wonderful to see a filmmaker trying to pull off such an ambitious project, I confess to being disappointed by The Tree Of Life.  There are some touching scenes between father and son but the rest of the film felt too heavy-handed.  Did we need the endless number of shots looking up at the sun?  Did we need the random quotes that were whispered by the actors?  Did we need to go back to an age when dinosaurs existed?

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki recently revealed that the first cut of the film was 8 hours long.  He said Malick was working on a 6 hour version that will be released soon.  I don’t know if I should be excited or terrified.  This 2 hour version was exhausting enough but perhaps a longer version might help the “story” flow a little better.

Based on other reviews I’ve read, it looks like The Tree Of Life will feature in many top 10 lists at year end.  Not mine though.  Perhaps I just didn’t get it.  I really wish I could ask Terrence Malick a few questions.  Does anyone have his phone number?