Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life.

Legendary American filmmaker Terrence Malick returns with his first picture in six years, since the acclaimed but under-watched The New World. The enigmatic Malick, renowned for his infrequent but groundbreaking movies, has yet again got the cinema abuzz with his latest film, The Tree of Life.

His rebellious debut Badlands was iconic and feisty, his WWII epic The Thin Red Line was inspirationally human, but Malick’s seventh directorial feature The Tree of Life is truly extraordinary. Winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, the 67 year-old continues to prove that it is always worth the long wait for his films.

This ambitious production, showcasing again the serious acting talent of Brad Pitt, will probably divide cinema-goers on a point of justification for the grandiose visual imagery. Interspersed between a fairly simple story of a 1950’s American family, in which Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) brings up his three boys up in a slightly heavy-handed, contrasting way to his more tenderly-loving wife (Jessica Chastain), is an explosion of soaring, stellar imagery–supported by operatic music – that ranges from the breathtaking to the bizarre.

The plot of  The Tree of Life begins with the devastation of the O’Brien household, as one of the three boys is killed. Before the viewer is given any real insight into the family, we are taken on an extended aesthetic journey through fantastical, celestial and evolutionary scenes (including dinosaurs), in what is as outrageous and off-the-wall a digression you are ever likely to see in a Hollywood movie.

Running alongside this imagery and these themes are whispered voices from the characters, of religious context – in contrast to the Darwinist visuals – firing existential questions of a God that may or may not be out there or listening, in relation to the taking of a young boy from the earth before his time.

What we get after Malick’s visual madness is a meatier story of adolescence, focusing on one of the boys, Jack (Hunter McCracken), remembering a time of difficulty – before his brother’s death – with learning to deal with the pressures of growing up, intrigue and boys’ problems with authority.

The film’s acted scenes are realistic, provoking genuine empathy and nostalgia, and are brimming with issues about love, frustration and regret, while showing man tackling life head on. Whereas, the conceptual interludes that display nature’s incredible force and enormity seem to be an elaborate way of showing how insignificant one life can be in the context of a seemingly infinite universe, but at the same time be integral and vital to this one minuscule epoch in history.

This may be the reason for the way that the film is edited; like a series of snapshots and moments in time. In these snapshots, Sean Penn has a curious cameo as the grown-up Jack – now a high-powered city businessman – reflecting on this memory of childhood,where he simply strolls through dream-like scenes, amongst his family and amidst nature. It is as though he is walking through memories, whilst contemplating and pondering life.

The Tree of Life is a must-watch film, if only to have an opinion, as it will be labelled as “genius” or “pretentious” in equal measures. I think it falls somewhere in between the two, as there are times when the scenes without dialogue are over-indulgent, but much of the film is as engrossing as it is inventive. The story seems to suggest that despite how insignificant to the overall scheme of things that one life might seem, in this ever-evolving and mysterious world, essentially to those that their life has touched, one moment in time can mean everything.

The Tree of Life (12A)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, HunterMcCracken, LaramieEppler, Tye Sheridan
Running time: 139 minutes

The Tree of Life is showing at the Rio Cinema until 14 July.

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