Terrance Malick’s new film The Tree of Life is not your average movie going experience. It’s a visual whirlwind of emotions that may or may not make sense, may or may not give you something to think about, and may or may not annoy the heck out of you. Philosophical and wondrous at heart, the film aspires to tackle lofty questions on life, religion and the place and purpose of humans amongst nature and grace.
The movie is shot beautifully, and visually creates a moment in space and time. Each shot feels crisp and real. The viewer is effortlessly transported to a 1950’s suburban town full of grassy lawns and towering trees, where innocent kids wasted long hours just being kids. Life seeks to weave the story of this “average” Texas family into the bigger picture story about questioning the beginnings of life on Earth—where did we come from, who put us here, and why?
The journey through questions that have remained unanswered for thousands of years is introspective and personal, leaving the answer of if the movie actually succeeds in what it set out to accomplish something only the individual can answer, as this is a film that will affect different people in different ways.
Nature was on display throughout the movie, both visually and in the creative use of sound. Sound replaces dialogue for most of the movie. We are treated to the authentic sound of footsteps on deserted streets, the sound of water, the rustle of the leaves. At times it seems as if Malick is trying to illustrate the silence of life that we all experience at one time or another—while we are deep in thought, the world still moves, the leaves still rustle.
Music also has a starring role in the film. Malick employs an over-the-top soundtrack of classical piano and opera that at times almost makes you forget what exactly you are supposed to be pondering as the music soars in the background. The music is most prominent when mixed with glorious, yet seemingly random shots of the Earth “being born,” a big part of the picture for the film's creators, but a part that, to the viewer, can come off as a disconnected and confusing interruption to the commanding acting unfolding on screen.
The highlight of the movie is the phenomenal performances of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastin. The two play husband and wife, mother and father to a set of three young boys growing up in the “perfect” 1950’s family. Pitt plays the clean cut, military father who is “perfect” on paper, but is strict, ridged and demanding to his boys.
Pitt’s character has by far the most dialogue, which is still considerably sparse by any big budget movie standard. Still, we are able to experience the full range of his character, even getting a peek into his inner emotions and struggles. This just shows what an extraordinary actor Pitt truly is, able to captivate an audience even when not saying much.
Jessica Chastin delivers a stellar performance as Pitt’s wife and mother of three young boys. With barely a word uttered, she effortlessly puts her emotions on display, and we instantly feel her unconditional love and compassion for her boys. Her face radiates warmth, and leads us through a variety of emotions. Her expressions guide us into her heart and mind; they show us her love and happiness around her boys, and the pain and helplessness she feels when Pitt unleashes his anger on them. She is exceptional in a role that is arguably the most important of the entire film.
The Tree of Life is not a blockbuster style movie, and it will likely fall short of drawing in the large audiences that summer movies crave. However, if you are seeking something with a superb cast that is outside the realm of a traditional film, then Life just may fulfill your summer movie wish list.
The Tree of Life is currently playing at Clearview Cinemas, White Street.