Much hyped and long in development, Terrence Malicks \'The Tree of Life\' is a work of extraordinary ambition and scope, very much deserving of its win of the Palme dOr at Cannes...
In the opening chapter of Leo Tolstoy\'s Anna Karenina, the Russian novelist argued that - though all happy families are alike with one another - each unhappy family is unique and surprising in their own unhappiness. The Tree of Life - the reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick\'s first film since the 2005 Pocahontas drama The New World - depicts the unhappy American family within the prism of romanticism and mystical archetype. Opening with an extract from the Biblical Book of Job, Malick\'s new film draws upon our universe\'s very creation - The Big Bang - in this large-in-scope-small-in-scale drama, in which primal figures like father, mother and child consider philosophical concepts of nature, such as grace, survival, kindness and experience.
In The Tree of Life, a haggard-looking Sean Penn is Jack O\'Brien, a wealthy and prominent architect who is nonetheless troubled and lost in a mire of existentialism in his adult state. With an emphasis on cold, formal colours like whites and greys from production designer Jack Fisk (a long-time Malick collaborator), these early sequences set in Jack\'s two-storey home and his metropolitan workplace recall the formalism of sci-fi cinema like Stanley Kubrick\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas\' debut THX 1138.
Despite these scenes featuring Penn - who was given a more prominent role in Malick\'s earlier epic The Thin Red Line - the primary focus of The Tree of Life is on Jack\'s childhood experiences in mid-20th Century Texas. In these flashbacks, Brad Pitt plays Mr. O\'Brien, Jack\'s God-fearing and authoritarian father; Jessica Chastain is Jack\'s kindly and generous mother, Mrs. O\'Brien; and the newcomer Hunter McCracken is the Young Jack, a child on the verge of adolescence.
Around 30 years ago, Malick worked on a project called Q, which featured images of pre-Historic Earth. Whether or not The Tree of Life is a restoration of that earlier project is not clear given Malick\'s refusal to conduct interviews, yet this new film shares thematic similarities with that project. Early in The Tree of Life, the adult Jack looks to The Big Bang, and Malick - in full-blown Kubrick mode - contrasts the creation of life and pre-history with modern man\'s struggle to reconcile survival and kindness. Granted, this sequence provides little narrative-momentum to Jack\'s story (in fact, on a storytelling level, this film could exist without this sequence, which makes sense given that Malick and the producers originally intended to show this sequence in a larger cut as an IMAX doco entitled The Voyage of Time). Yet, these moments also help present the O\'Brien family as a model for Malick\'s philosophical concerns over identity and choice. A predator dinosaur shows pity to its smaller prey, foreshadowing Mrs. O\'Brien\'s own generosity to some local prisoners; the formation of stars, planets and microbes, moreover, give credence to Mr. O\'Brien\'s lectures to his children about the importance of mental toughness and survival.
Visually, the cinematography is inventive in its contrast. Following their excellent work in The New World, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) create dream-like imagery. Shooting on location in Austin, Dallas and other Southern areas in the U.S., Lubezki and Malick find visual poetry in metropolitan, suburban and rural areas. Foregoing traditional camera set-ups like establishing shots and reverse angles, they maintain a constantly moving camera, pulling from medium shots to close-ups within the same take. Courtesy of voice-over narrations from Jack and his parents, the film\'s perspective shifts, as Lubezki\'s camera helps to establish this sense of narrative dislocation.
The actors embody the film\'s conflict with their different styles of performance. With his stern Southern accent and clenched jawbone, Pitt gives a performance of stoicism and restraint. In 2007, Heath Ledger (then in-demand with filmmakers following his Oscar-nomination and his highly-anticipated role in The Dark Knight) was slated to appear in the role, and Pitt\'s performance recalls Ledger\'s excellent work in Brokeback Mountain, especially the way in which Pitt\'s father seems to struggle to verbalise his emotions. In contrast to her A-list co-star, the Sissy Spacek-like Chastain seems to belong to another, better, world, entirely. As her scenes are mostly framed through the elder Jack\'s memory, Chastain is tasked with embodying not only Jack\'s mother, but the spiritual concept of \'grace\' to Mr. O\'Brien\'s \'survivor\'. Gentle, earthy and quiet, Chastain gives a mostly silent performance - with the exception of her voice-over, which is extensive and recurring - responding with naturalism to Pitt\'s more theatrical performance. (Unsurprisingly, international casting directors have snapped up Chastain after her casting in Malick\'s film, as the American actress in a number of finished, yet unreleased, dramas like John Madden\'s Mossad thriller The Debt and Ralph Fiennes\' violent Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, as well as Malick\'s untitled new romantic drama).
Of course, given the film\'s extraordinary ambition, The Tree of Life has led to mixed responses, especially after the film\'s win at Cannes in May. In the latest issue of FILMINK, editor Erin Free called the film a \"bewildering, titanic disappointment,\" and at least one theatre owner in the U.S. has even posted a notice to audiences indicating a strict no-refund policy given the amount of walkouts. Yes, the film\'s ending is a little pat (in which - among other things - Jack\'s wife is given increased thematic resonance, a concept that is confusing given her insignificant role in the narrative). Note: this is not the first time that Malick has incorporated a seemingly significant, probably heavily-edited, character at a film\'s closing. Remember the bewildering appearance of George Clooney in the closing of The Thin Red Line? Or Jonathan Pryce as King James in The New World?
Few films, however, even come close to delving as deeply into its concerns as much as Terrence Malick\'s The Tree of Life. Visually, thematically and narratively, The Tree of Life is a work of tremendous scale and ambition.