The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

We never see, as an adult, the one who dies. He was only on the cusp anyway; still a boy to his mother (Jessica Chastain), who opens the telegram. His father (Brad Pitt) gets a phone call at an airport, almost unable to hear. Neither can understand. There are two ways to go through life, the mother has said. The way of nature - selfishly, destructively - or the way of grace. Those who follow the way of grace never come to a bad end. So why has God taken her son?

The way of grace was never easy for Jack (Sean Penn), the brother. The oldest child, he still has an uneasy relationship with his father. The father still struggles to express what he feels - perhaps even to himself. The mother and the brother go searching for answers. He reflects on childhood and the way he grew apart from those he loved. She journeys back into deep time and out across the universe, asking, what is the origin of this life? She is searching for God, but perhaps not as He is commonly understood. "My God," she calls him once, but He is plainly not hers to command, and she has reached a place in life where she suddenly experiences difficulty in making herself His. There is a deep sense of mystery here, a majestic universe in which one human life plays a tiny part; still one that means everything to her. We travel through swirling galaxies; we watch asteroids collide with a primeval Earth. Mud pools bubble. Jellyfish emerge from clear blue water. A hadrosaur scampers through the undergrowth, seeking, almost understanding something; then another asteroid impact, mass destruction. Regrowth.

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Childhood is scene through a similar series of vignettes, masterfully edited. Set against these cosmic events it might seem like a trivial thing, but the glory of trivial moments is not lost on the mother; the sensitivity that makes her loss so painful is the same thing that fills her with life. Jack adores her as a child. The first appearance of a brother, however, brings jealousy (young Finnegan Williams is superb as the resentful toddler). As he grows older he has to bear the burden of being the firstborn, the one onto whom his father projects adult frustrations. Now the happy family scenes are mingled with bitterness. Hunter McCracken takes the lead as the troubled boy, protective of his brothers (now two in number) but frustrated; worried also for his mother, who has bruises on her face. But life pelts along at full pace. The boys run in a gang down back alleys, setting off fire crackers, breaking into buildings. There's pain to prove how tough one is and danger for the sake of it, developing masculine identities in defiance, as much as in imitation, of the father.

Malick's poetic film is limned with magical realism - the mother who seems to dance through the air in delight, the beach where long lost loved ones meet. His characteristic love of light and America's wild landscapes is given full rein. The sets are stunning, buildings chosen for their windows, their ceilings, their aerial walkways. Light is everywhere, sometimes blinding; there's a pale, washed out look that touches on realism yet draws out natural beauty. Grace is never remote. Chastain's gentle, unshowy performance sets the tone perfectly and provides a centrepoint to the heady, whirling story. Pitt ventures into new territory to give depth to a man who is often hard to like, yet whose longing to find joy in the world as she does is clear.

"Are you watching?" Penn asks of God. He could as easily be asking the viewer. Gifted with omnipresence and omniscience, we may find it easier to understand these people than they do to understand themselves. By deliberately positioning us as outsiders, Malick challenges us to imagine our own lives as viewed by such as observer. It is a rare film that dares to countenance awe. Stunning use of music and Malick's trademark surrealist approach to sound design elevate a piece of art that makes no concessions to the expectations of the modern cinema audience.

The Tree Of Life will doubtless scare away some viewers within half an hour and others will sit it out without connecting at all. One cannot produce art and please everyone. This is, however, a stunning film, Malick's greatest work to date, and it demonstrates that cinema is still capable of showing us something new and brilliant in the ordinary.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2011
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The loss of a son and brother leads to a journey back through memory and the past in search of answers.
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Chris ***

Director: Terrence Malick

Writer: Terrence Malick

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan

Year: 2011

Runtime: 139 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

Festivals:

SSFF 2011

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