The Tree of Life ★★★★☆

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I’m one of those people who likes to sit at the back of the cinema after a film has finished and politely eavesdrop on the opinions of the patrons as they leave. If you didn’t know this was a human pastime, then I’m afraid you’ve had a lot of your conversations listened in on. Whilst a general consensus usually tends to emerge during the end credits, The Tree of Life brought forth a unique mish-mash of responses ranging from pompous nuances to puerile commentary. Indeed, given that the film’s only universally emotive certainty appears to be the provocation of thought, reviewing it may be a somewhat fruitless endeavour.

The Tree of Life revolves around the childhood memories of Sean Penn, who plays a minor role as the adult version of the central character, a boy named Jack (played by Hunter McCracken). A modern day city-liver, adult Jack screams of corporate success, but there are distinct undertones of disillusionment surrounding his life. During the film’s rather sombre opening, it is implied that these feelings stem from the tragic premature death of his brother, years in the past.

Suffice to say, aside from the big name stars, there isn’t much about the film that fits into the archetypal feel-good Hollywood formula. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s most controversial scene — a conceptual depiction of Jack’s eerily familiar attempts to rationalise his pain away by contextualising the minuteness of human loss in the almighty scale of the universe. This is illustrated via a magnificent progression of moving images detailing the history of the universe, from its ‘creation’ to the mass annihilation of the dinosaurs. In the absence of formal dialog and for a period many will view to be tediously long, the visual delights are accompanied by fantastic classical symphonies which perfectly bolster the tone of celestial grandeur.

Classical pieces are synonymous with Terrence Malik’s direction, but never before has it been woven so intricately throughout his films. The works of Bach, Holst and Berlioz are but to name a few of the accompaniments Alexandre Desplat recorded for the picture, using original cues to seamlessly blend the ensembles into a flowing rendition which feeds the emotional narrative.

Set in Jack’s idyllically nature-orientated memories of 1950s Waco, Texas, Brad Pitt arguably offers his greatest performance as the conflicted father who gave up his ambitions of an illustrious musical career for the realities of family life and the daily factory grind. Jessica Chastain plays opposite him as the demure mother figure that subtly tempts her three boys away from their indulgently ‘natural’ childhoods with the reassurance of religion against Pitt’s brash attempts to toughen them up in preparation for the ‘real world’.

Built upon a healthy foundation of Oedipal connotations, the main focus of the film rests upon the awkward rapport Jack shares with his father (Pitt). Rather than a definitive ‘pay off’ father-son moment, however, the film’s beauty gradually unravels with the maturation of Jack’s character. In particular, this plays off an internal conundrum of growing paternal resent coupled with the unwanted recognition of both his father’s love and shared characteristics.

The moot point for most critics is the apparently disjointed storyline. The assumption of a tragic brotherly death scene conclusion proves to be the red herring that leaves them reeling with an absence of fulfilment when the credits fade in. If you are one of these people, rather than debate Malik’s choice of story structure, I just want to point out that you’re feeling disappointed at not seeing a child die.

The downside is that although The Tree of Life is a fantastic film, you probably won’t like it. In the space of this review I couldn’t even begin to cover all of its aspects but I could easily sum up the plot as 138 minutes of nothing actually happening. As a self-confessed people-watcher who neither has nor desires a more enthralling pastime, there were times when even I thought the film was dragging on a bit. This is not to say the film isn’t intense, thought-provoking and original, but I only recommend it on the proviso that you accept the risk that it may induce mild infuriation.

The Tree of Life (2011), directed by Terrence Malick, is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, certificate 12A.

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