Cannes 2011 Review: THE TREE OF LIFE
Writer: Terrence Malick
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
It's about damn time.
After months (over a year to be exact) of waiting for a release, Terrence Malick's long-awaited return to the big screen, his long-gestating familial epic THE TREE OF LIFE, finally had its premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Coming with a historic level of expectations, TREE OF LIFE is arguably one of 2011's most hotly anticipated films, and one that frankly, has things to live up to that no film could. However, for the most part, it makes these expectations look a bit low.
TREE OF LIFE is an odd film to attempt to describe in any narrative sense. A small film plotwise, the film follows the story of Jack, a boy raised in a religious and relatively strict household, by an equally tough father. However, TREE OF LIFE spans thousands of years in what can best be described as both the journey through life - be it human, animal, or otherwise - as well as a conversation between one man, and his spiritual faith.
It's also a bit of a mess, but one that will leave your jaw on the floor.
Terrence Malick is on the top of his game here, bringing a level of visual acumen that he's been building to his entire career. The logical move forward for an auteur known for his desolate frames and wandering camera, Malick crafts a feature that gives us the intimacy of a dinner in a tiny Southern kitchen, as well as the broad reach of an eclipse or entire galaxies. While not quite as narratively tight as a film like DAYS OF HEAVEN or THE THIN RED LINE (both of which I think are "better" films despite being less ambitious), the film has a crispness within its frame that oozes Malick's patented style.
Equally dense thematically, the film is an interesting mix of both concepts and tone. With a few flourishes of emotional resonance, TREE OF LIFE will leave most pondering what the film is about, and not so much who the film is about or why one should be connected to these people. However, the themes truly carry the film, which is honestly better described as a cinematic poem from one of cinema's great poets. A look into faith, life and death, and a human's battle with these three entities, Malick has created a feature that will become foder for various groups, ranging from cinephiles to philosophers.
That said, he also crafted one hell of a mess.
Brad Pitt is the closest thing this film has to a star, playing the role of the tough and stubborn Mr. O'Brien. A victim of total belief in the American Dream, Pitt gives a great amount of heft to a character that could otherwise solely be seen as a true villain. Instead, while one may not agree with him, a level of understanding behind what he is doing is ultimately there and it carries the emotional bulk of the film. Jessica Chastain plays the role of the mother, and is ultimately given very little to do on screen. Giving a great performance, Chastain is truly wasted here, until the final few moments of the film, which shine along with the opening few moments as TREE OF LIFE's strongest beats. The real issue here performance-wise is Sean Penn, and his performance is a microcosm of issues that are deeply held within this film.
Penn plays the older version of Jack, and exists as nothing more than a bookend for a film that seems to simply jam in the more conventional narrative between. If Penn had simply either played the sole version of Jack, thus jettisoning the middle narrative portion, or been jettisoned himself, TREE OF LIFE would have played as a far tighter film, and one that ultimately would have lived up to its massive hype. Penn simply pouts to the camera while a spiritually-leaning voiceover covers for any onscreen performance. However, this flaw is ultimately saved by a narrative arc that feels complete and rewarding, both narratively and intellectually. TREE OF LIFE feels as though it is two different narratives, one experimental and steeped in spirituality and one far more intimate family drama, that don't seem to have the strongest or most rewarding through lines connecting the two. That said, the film does reward those looking to delve deeper into the film's core.
Overall, TREE OF LIFE doesn't live up to its hype. But then again, what can? Simply put, TREE OF LIFE is a wonderfully dense film both thematically and visually that is ultimately undone because of a poor bookend and a lack of true emotional depth. Unlike anything we've seen this year, if not longer, 2011's best film may not have hit the Croisette thanks to Malick, but he sure as hell gave us one of its most original and interesting.
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