Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Tree of Life - Review

It's a unique kind of film that attracts a packed art house audience, only to send half of them packing before the end credits roll. The last time I saw so many people leave a cinema was when Closer wasn't quite the Julia Roberts Rom Com a lot of old ladies clearly expected. But The Tree of Life's divisive nature is on a different level: those that left apparently found in unbearable, but those that stayed loved it. Perhaps it's Brad Pitt's name on the poster that draws in audiences that clearly have no prior knowledge of the film, but I don't remember the same response (in either attracting or repelling audiences) to Pitt's Assassination of Jesse James.

Cinema-going experience aside, The Tree of Life is without a doubt one of the year's most unmissable cinematic experiences. And it really should be experienced on the big screen. It may be self indulgent and taxing, but its dizzyingly realised scope & ambitions put it in a class of its own. You could watch it purely as a two hour audio-visual experience and be mesmerised, but there's also a wonderful story (or something like it) if you're willing to take it for what it is and be swept along with its stream of consciousness meditations on childhood, loss, death, creation, God, justice, nature and grace, all built around an urban business man's recollections of his suburban 1950s childhood, the moments that shaped his world view and the impact of his parents - his gracious, gentle, open-hearted mom and his loving but harsh and fundamentally disappointed dad.

With bar-setting camerawork from Emmanuel Lubezki, and a classical Alexandre Desplat score to match, the film is already a masterclass in cinema, but its a marvel that Mallick managed to put his impressionistic ambitions to paper in the first place and that his team of editors managed to put it all together. The special effects team take in lengthy sequences charting the creation of the Universe and episodes with dinosaurs that are not only beautiful, but slyly show that it's not always the fittest that survive.

Lending the film its weight and lasting impact, however, is the strong cast, both young & old, Oscar winning & unknown. Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain create captivating characters while embodying adult Jack's memories & Mallick's themes of Nature and Grace. The child cast, led by the exceptional Hunter McCracken, is uniformly gritty, complex and real, much to Mallick's credit. Only Sean Penn wanders somewhat aimlessly through the present-day scenes (& fantasy climax), but as an actor his angst is effortlessly convincing & what he lacks in definition, Emmanuel Lubezki more than makes up for with the camera work that surrounds him.

Manically ambitious, unique & unmissable.