Dir: Terence Malick
"There are two ways through life; the way of nature and the way of grace, you have to choose which one you'll follow".
"Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will".
These two lines, which occur almost at opposite ends of Terence Malick's latest long in the works (it has it origins in an abandoned project considered as the follow up to Days of Heaven in the late 1970's) opus, are the two lines which define the film, which draw it together, despite an elliptical structure which will aggravate some viewers, into a cohesive and emotionally engaging work which functions on levels far deeper than its truly astounding surface beauty. In 139 minutes, The Tree of Life manages to be about everything, it takes Transformers: Dark of the Moon 157 minutes to be about robots slapping each other. Guess which will make more money. Guess which deserves to.
Malick speaks with spiritual fervour through Tree of Life's images, and at the centre of this journey through time and the connectedness of the universe, he boils it all down to the story of a family; a Mother (Jessica Chastain, essentially playing an earthbound angel, and representing the way of Grace), a Father (Brad Pitt, whose toughness and sometimes animal nature represents the way of Nature) and their three young sons. The focus is largely on eldest; Jack (Hunter Mc Cracken, who grows up to become Sean Penn, who appears for perhaps three minutes and is near silent), and the twin pulls of the influence of his Father and his Mother. The second son, RL (Laramie Eppler) is also important, as it is his death, at the age of just 19 (it may well be that he dies in Vietnam, given the impression you get of when the film is set, though Malick's own brother - he too is one of three - killed himself) that sets the film in motion, that powers Penn's dreamlike look back at his and his parents life, and it is RL who is the pivotal ingredient in the film's most soaringly beautiful emotional moment.
The performances are exemplary all round, and perhaps more so given the odd shape of this film. Dialogue is extremely limited, and things tend to unfold through linked, but non-linear, images as we watch the children grow. Like the branches of memory, Malick's moments are vivid; perhaps too crisp to really be real, but the whole cast engages with the film's otherworldly tone, and they play at its level, without misstepping and making the film feel dishonest. The child actors are all non-professionals, and from them Malick gets a supreme naturalness and a real sense of sibling love and sibling rivalry. Among the professionals, while there are a few other people in the film, the only ones we really focus on are Pitt and Chastain. Though Pitt's character is animal nature and instinct, and there is clearly brutality in the man, his performance has many more notes than that. I believe this man when he says that he loves his kids, that he wants better for them than he has, and that he is trying to raise them as best he understands, but he can also be frightening; the animal nature made flesh. Pitt squares the circle beautifully, in his best performance for years. If Jessica Chastain doesn't get put on the speed dial of every agent in Hollywood after this film, then something is wrong with the world. She is not playing a real woman so much as Jack's idealised vision of his Mother, and she excels, without making the character seem untouchable. It's a delicate piece of acting, and one rich in emotion; emotion which is often repressed, and therefore all the more moving when, at either end of the film, it spills over. It is also hard to fault Malick's casting at an iconographic level; as an angel in a film about beauty the radiant Chastain is the perfect vision.
As with all of Malick's films, The Tree of Life is truly something to behold. To call Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's images beautiful seems almost an understatement. Let's put it like this; if you were to hold a print of this film in your hands, close your eyes and run through it to a random point and then cut out the single frame you stopped at, that image would be the single most beautiful thing you saw that day, perhaps that year. This visual beauty probably reaches its zenith in the jaw dropping twenty minute special effects sequence which takes us from the birth of our universe to the extinction of the dinosaurs. This follows an elliptical opening fifteen minutes, in which Malick almost totally eschews dialogue and lets images and voiceover do all the talking, and taken together these thirty five minutes add up almost to an overture to the film; a tone poem that introduces the themes and ideas that Malick will be exploring for the following 100 minutes.
While it is often dazzling, The Tree of Life is not perfect. There is a small issue of pacing here, Malick does sometime restate his ideas once or twice too often, and seeks to make sure that we've got hold of a theme that was obvious some time before by indicating it just once more. He also really doesn't need the dinosaurs, they just feel like they've walked in from a different film (though who wouldn't want to see Malick's Jurassic Park 4)? The sightly baggy feel could probably be addressed sufficiently with about fifteen minutes of cuts. A few moments with Sean Penn also feel a little redundant, though that impression is largely rectified by the film's quietly astounding final scene.
On the whole I can understand why someone might hate this film (I suspect that on a different day I might have been that someone), all I can say is that you have to surrender to it, you have to allow the pieces to draw together, allow Malick and his actors to pull that central thread of nature and grace, until it brings the film's themes and images together into a gorgeous if imperfect whole.
Please go and see this instead of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Really. Please.