A new film by Terrence Malick is an event in itself, and once again the uncompromising visionary has created a cinematic experience unlike most you are ever likely to see. However, while there is much to admire about his latest experiment, there are also undeniable flaws not normally seen in his work.
The straight forward plot follows a young boy’s tough childhood with his demanding Christian father (Brad Pitt) sending him out of control, we also see his adult life, as well as the evolution of the world in a 2001 kind of way.
On a visual level the film is just about perfect, the stunning neon flashes of lights across space, combined with a piecing classical score makes for a powerful, unsettling, but also relaxing experience, it is like the wonder of the universe celebrated to the extreme. The light and dark of the history of the family is well observed, with a use of muffled sounds and muted voices proving very unsettling, the whole thing shot in a very dim, eerie light, however that is balanced by a brilliant lightness of touch and fluency like in the sequence where the husband is caressing his wife’s tummy, and we see the birth of their new child and the family at the peak of happiness. It is a graceful and elegant set of moments, full of life and energy, and it is maybe here where we see the film at its best.
Another plus is Pitt who gives a very toned down, composed and intimidating performance, almost unrecognisable from any other time in his career, he has very few words to say in a long film, but makes the most of each one, likewise Jessica Chastain does well in an almost silent role, at times on the fringes of things.
Sadly there are just as many flaws, like the mumbling voice over which over telegraphs the point, when really the visuals and atmosphere are enough on their own, this does give TTOL a little bit of a pompous feel at times. At a hundred and thirty eight minutes it does feel over long and ponderous at times suggesting that there needed to be sharper editing, add to this that because of the nature of the story the film fails as a complete narrative, even if it is an interesting failure. Another slight problem is that when the young boy starts going off the rails, and things turn sinister, there is not really enough invested in the character to care that much or feel sorry for him, on the whole the mother is the only likeable character.
How odd then given all these flaws, that The Tree of Life still works as a one off project which I would still recommend everyone see, and which I will be returning to myself. For better or for worse it is Terrence Malick at his full blooded best.
DIRECTOR: TERRENCE MALICK
STARS: BRAD PITT, SEAN PENN, JESSICA CHASTAIN
RUNTIME: 138 MIN