The tree of life
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken
Director: Terrence Malick
As in his previous films, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life has at its centre an evocation of an Edenic paradise. This time, it's a small Texan town in the 1950s as recalled, in long flashbacks, by the film's protagonist, Jack O'Brien. One scene stands out: a group of local children frolic amid the plumes of white smoke billowing from a passing vehicle in their suburban street. While vivid as a dream, the sequence is ambiguous in its meaning: the youngsters are, in fact, running alongside a pest-control truck spraying DDT. It's a case of innocent joy built on a blissful ignorance of danger and could serve as a foreshadowing of a more uncertain future a decade later in Vietnam, Agent Orange and all.
In Malick's films, stunning visceral beauty nearly always comes with a sense of unease and anxiety. His latest opus highlights the uncertainty of human existence even at its most pastoral. Here, the conundrum lies with a boy who has grown up under two very different moral codes: the adult Jack (Sean Penn), an architect in a big office in a skyscraper, appears a scarred being as he begins the film seemingly at a loss, trying to reconcile himself with his father and his past.
The film recalls Jack's childhood, when the prepubescent boy (Hunter McCracken) is split between adherence to the demands of 'nature' - as embodied by his father (Brad Pitt), a stern patriarch who demands complete obedience at home and 'a fierce will to get ahead' in the outside world - and the appeal of 'grace', in the shape of his loving mother (Jessica Chastain, above with McCracken, right, and Laramie Eppler), who tries to instil compassion and tolerance in her children. Through a montage of episodes in which the two value systems thrive and clash, the director constructs an engaging picture of Jack's swings between anguish and joy. Malick shows a lot with very little - we are made to feel O'Brien Snr's tyranny through the way he toughens up the boys by asking them to punch him in the face, while his wife's kindness is revealed in her small, saintly gestures towards the town's down-and-outers.
The Tree of Life is epic in how it provides depth to all its characters - O'Brien Snr's bitterness is accounted for through concise episodes showing his frustration in having lived what he regards as an unfulfilled life - and undertakes an audacious step back in time to look for the meaning of existence in the beginning of the universe.
In a fantastic sequence that begins with the Big Bang and ends with the dawn of the Ice Age, Malick charts the evolution of life and asks questions about the validity of notions such as the survival of the fittest. As a wounded dinosaur lies on a river bed, another comes along and puts its foot on its neck; but rather than killing the weaker animal, the bigger creature moves on. The connection with the film's main narrative is not made explicit, but it's such awe-inspiring moments that make The Tree of Life a wonder.
The Tree of Life opens today