Tuesday, January 24, 2012

THE TREE OF LIFE - For the Art-Film Fan

Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Joanna Going, Fiona Shaw, Jackson Hurst, Pell James, Crystal Mantecon, Lisa Marie Newmyer and Jennifer Sipes
Director: Terence Malick
Screenplay: Terence Malick
Time: 138 mins
Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 4)

Brad Pitt (centre) with Hunter McCraken and Laramie Eppler

PREAMBLE: Mention Terence Malick and film critics get ready to go down on their knees and sing his praises. The auteur has made only five feature films (including Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World) since 1970s - and are mostly box-office flops but apparently, they have something to wow the critics and his fans.

Indeed, his fans have waited long for The Tree Of Life, Malick's grand opus on the meaning of life and memories of his childhood, and reading their adorations makes me feel like the boy who said the Emperor was naked.

Granted that the images of 'Creation' - and even those of the dinosaurs - can be breath-taking and spectacular but we are not watching National Geographic, for goodness sake. The narrative about an American family in the 1950s is more engaging - but ultimately empty of meaning.

Chastain and Eppler

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The movie opens in Waco, Texas, where Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) grieve after receiving word about the death of one of their three sons. Later, we see their eldest son, Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), as an architect whose wondering existence forces him to reflect on his childhood in the 1950s where he was raised by his temperamental father (Pitt) and loving mother (Chastain).

His father is such a bully at home that Jack (played as a kid by Hunter McCracken) and his siblings (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) celebrate with riotious pranks whenever their dad travels long distances to work. And yes, besides documenting the birth of Jack, Malick also blends in the Earth's creation via a series of kaleidoscopic and CG images.

HITS & MISSES: Inspired by a quote from the Book of Job — “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding”. Malick's opus is partly about the loss of innocence and the coming-of-age story personified in Jack. The series about the creation of the universe reminds me of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but here, it is just confusing and more pretentious. A film that explores the meaning of life can only turn out to be confounding and an exercise in futility. Ultimately, we get pretty images but little sense or plot.

The film tests our patience. Malick does not tell his story, he teases us with visual suggestions. A case in point is the sequence in which Jack steals a woman's lingerie - only to bury it and float it down the stream. Why? Did he masturbate with it?

The young cast of relative unknowns - McCracken, Eppler (who even looks like Pitt) and Sheridan - are splendid and so are Pitt and Chastain who portray the Every Couple of the Fifties. There is very little dialogue and a lot of the narrative has to be interpreted by the audience. This can be fun but it can also be confusing and tedious after a while.

THE LOWDOWN: One for the art-film fan.

NB: This review is for Oscar-watchers. I don't think The Tree Of Life will be released in Malaysia


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