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  Tree of Life, The Answer Me That
Year: 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Jessica Fuselier, Nicholas Gonda, Will Wallace, Kelly Koonce, Bryce Boudoin, Jimmy Donaldson, Kameron Vaughn, Joanna Going, Irene Bedard, Samantha Martinez
Genre: Drama, Historical, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) is now a successful businessman, something for which he can thank the work ethic instilled in him from a very early age by his father (Brad Pitt), but his Texas childhood haunts him to this day. Something his mother (Jessica Chastain) said has always stuck with him, about there being two states in this world, grace, which takes all the insults and injuries life can throw at it and accepts them to move beyond such flaws, and nature, which is purely selfish, rooted in the real world, and with no interest in whatever spirituality might be lying ahead of us...

At least, that's what The Tree of Life seemed to be about, as for all too many viewers its actual meaning was so hard to fathom that they threw up their hands at writer and director Terrence Malick's musings and rejected it outright with that accursed word "pretentious". Just because one filmmaker attempts to depict the whole of human experience from the creation of the universe right up to the present day on Planet Earth, he gets called pretentious! I ask you, does nobody reward ambition anymore? Certainly it was one of the worst reviewed, both professionally and otherwise, films of Malick's prestigious career.

But that's not to say nobody liked it at all, as there were a more than a few who may not even have been aware of his previous work - he didn't exactly make high profile blockbusters, no matter their epic visuals - but responded to what could be boiled down to a religious-themed search for meaning, all presented with such aching sincerity that there were times you could almost feel embarrassed for Malick to have worn his heart on his sleeve so much more than before, and not received his accustomed garlands of awe from the movie buffs. Yet that very nakedness of his emotion and his doubt was what made for one of his most captivating efforts.

Basically, if you took away all the gazing back into immeasurable aeons past, and the ending which seems to represent some kind of salvation in figurative terms (because what else could it be?), you had an intimate family drama where the loving but strict father conducts a largely unspoken battle for the hearts and minds of his sons with his tender and affectionate wife. The father was the personification of nature, an aggressive, unsentimental unless it suits him type, while the mother was grace, idolised by her offspring for her delicate emotional qualities which they had trouble weighing up against what was expected of the males in society. If she was the morality, then it was curious to see Malick, whose imagery practically worshipped the natural world before, choose her over the order and beauty of flora and fauna.

Douglas Trumbull was brought in to create the special effects, illustrating that all those years away from the field of movies had not dimmed his powers in this area: the shots of the universe and our environment falling into place were truly spectacular, and the dinsoaurs were utterly believable - but wait, dinosaurs? Acting out a morality tale of their own? Isn't that a little ridiculous? And it was true that much of this was so deeply personal to the director that it was as if his usual filter had come unglued and he was allowing anything he could muster into his film to make sense of what countless philosophers for millennia had failed to come up with as answers satisfying everyone.

Malick tentatively embraced God as an aesthete like himself who could perceive beauty even in suffering, which may have been why he used his own real life family tragedy in the plot of this, but this still led him to warm and fuzzy feelings for the reassuring ending which did not quite gel with the darkness in humanity, in nature, that caused him so much worry. Penn for one criticised Malick for being far too vague in his mission here, yet given much of this was structured around the forms of memory, then we could forgive him for that: in life not everything is made entirely clear even in retrospect. The Tree of Life was a folly then, but sometimes they can be among the most revealing of artworks, and such was the reaching for the stars here it was touchingly human that they remained outwith the grasp. Music by Alexandre Desplat, which includes classical pieces for further 2001: A Space Odysssey comparisons, though Stanley Kubrick would be far too cynical to tread this path with such lack of irony.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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