“Tree of Life”: the Penn is mightier than the plot

I went to see Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” at the weekend. It’s a film all about human suffering – mainly the audience’s.

Now, bear with me, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes so that must mean something, right? Wrong. I don’t know a single director, aside from Ken Loach, whose best film has won this much sought-after award. For example, Michael Haneke, a man I much admire but refuse to meet in a dark alley, won it in 2009 for his macabre film on “the origin of every type of terrorism” (‘The White Ribbon’) despite its gratuitous approach to such subject matter (silence, menace and omnipotence) and inferiority to his emotional “Glaciation” trilogy that blazed his unflinching path in the early 1990s.

Tackling such notions as purity, nature and redemption, unsurprisingly, “The Tree of Life” has received much critical acclaim – Peter Travers claims it’s “shot with a poet’s eye,” which I do not dispute. Indeed, had I the abilities to press pause at any time, not only would I have appreciated the opportunity to visit the bathroom during this 139m-long film, but I suspect I could have framed whatever was the on the screen and hung it upon my wall. The scenes of prehistoric earth were visually stunning and I could even overlook the pitiful dinosaurs that were paraded in front of my very pupils. But enough with the preaching, Mr Malick. It felt as if I were back in school assembly, listening to the local reverend discuss the origins of hot cross buns for the 100th time. Now critics have claimed that it avoids just this, but I beg to differ. One of the very last comments to be made in the film sums up my argument: “if you do not love, life will flash by.” Maybe that’s true, but isn’t that the morale of the story? “Seize the day.” Now I don’t mind didactic tales of woe, but if you want to appeal to me, which I’m sure wasn’t high up on Mr Malick’s list of priorities (maybe just under “feed the fish” and “collaborate with Michael Bay”), then don’t give me the main message of your film in vocal or written form – it’s up to me to decide. In this regard, even Aesop outdoes Terrence.

What’s it all about, for those completely in the dark? Well, we witness the flashbacks of a modern-day architect Jack (Sean Penn) who is dissatisfied with his upbringing in 1950s Texas under the watchful eyes of his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain.) It’s not so much a love song to the Deep South, where Terrence Malick was incidentally brought up, as much as it is an interminable two-and-half-hour rock opera about a piece of string. The audience spends an unusually long time witnessing the dynamics of the family unit: Jessica Chastain plays the benevolent mother who Jack walks all over while Brad Pitt adopts the stern father role. There’s a lot of focus on the strained relationship between father/mother. In fact, Chastain knows her abusive husband like the back of his hand. Literally. There are also the supposed typical bouts of teen angst as we watch Jack grow up, e.g. engaging in mindless vandalism and attaching a toad to a firework. (Even though the most dangerous thing I ever did in my youth was the Casper Slide.) Then again, I’d like to think that what Jack goes through in “The Tree of Life” is a more accurate reflection of my upbringing than anything you’d see in “The Inbetweeners Movie.”

Ultimately, this is a film that achieves everything it sets out not to do. It answers its own questions, despite its philosophical endeavour to discover the unanswerable question: what is the meaning of life? Perhaps it’s so convoluted it can’t help but resort to cliches. Jessica Chastain says at the beginning that “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace,” but Malick personifies this fairly obvious statement in the two parents. They’re two-dimensional constructs of his extremely ambitious screenplay (Pitt represents “nature” – a strict disciplinarian who encourages his son to be ruthless in this cut-throat world – whereas Chastain is the fountain of unconditional love, she is the human embodiment of “grace.”) Let me end this review with the last words we hear in the film, courtesy of Sean Penn: “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me.” Same here – I was wrestling for a refund.

1/5 (Proof that Jesus died in vain.) 

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