Pitt and Penn star in The Tree of Life


AS A PHILOSOPHICAL concept, the tree of life is the idea that everything is connected – well that’s the simple definition. Terrence Malick, writer and director of Thin Red Line, took on a huge task naming his new film after it.

Opening with an ominous religious quote and a lengthy shot of a dull flame it was clear from the start that The Tree of Life was going to be a heavy, if not curious, film. It explores the murky terrain between evolution and religious belief in both a grandiose and localised manner.

It’s grounded in the lives of a 1950s Texan family where Brad Pitt plays Mr O’Brien, the emotionally ambiguous yet dutiful husband and father of three boys. His wife (Jessica Chastlain) plays the wilted housewife and affectionate mother. Both characters are familiar and border on cliché.

When we meet them they have just been told their 19-year-old son has died. Fast forward to present day and their eldest son, Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn) is all grown up and still dealing with his brother’s death. Shot in a cold and architecturally expansive city, Penn plays what we assume to be the typified emotionally stunted male who harbours deep-rooted father issues.

The Tree of Life takes its first bizarre turn with an exquisite and slow-paced enactment of the story of evolution. Volcanoes erupt, waves roll, stars collide and the soundtrack is gloriously triumphant. It even shows dinosaurs roaming the earth.

Skip back to the O’Briens where Jack’s young memories are fraught with his father’s wavering affection and his mother’s unflinching love. We witness small yet quietly important moments as Jack and his two brothers grow from birth to young boys. There is an emphasis on their religious leanings with scenes of the sons being christened and prayer time at the dinner table.

The Tree of Life is shot in a fly-on-the-wall style. There’s minimal dialogue, one too many close-ups (who knew Brad Pitt had pores?) and a bunch of whispered existential questions that can seem hollow and pointless at first. There’s a feeling of being on edge as we witness the understatedly dramatic moments of heated meal time discussions or the boys playing in the forest with a BB gun.

There’s merit to this film but whether it was executed in the best way is something you’ll have to decide yourself. Some may find the camera style draining whereas others will find artistic value in it.

Penn and Pitt are impeccable as usual but play obvious characters. The standout is the young Jack (played by Hunter McCracken) who perfects the tumultuous bridge between childhood and adolescence.

The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Canne this year.


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