A film by the reclusive auteur Terrence Malick rarely comes by, with this being only his fifth film in a career spanning decades, and picking up the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, albeit to a polarizing response from screenings during the festival. Slated to also make its bow at this year's Singapore International Film Festival before its theatrical run, this advance screening today too saw its own share of detractors, with many walking out before the last reel unspooled. This is a Terrence Malick film after all, so it's an acquired taste to say the least.
I dare not say I've seen nor understood all of his works, but from whatever I've watched thus far, you'll come to expect a certain quality that comes with a Malick film, such as how fragmented its narrative can be, if it has a coherent one to begin with. There are plenty of moments in the film that he simply allows you to fill in the blanks yourself, providing bookends to scenes, and never shoving details down your throat. The details however comes through in the more technical aspects of the film. Rarely will you find a shot being misplaced or not serving a purpose, and watching a Malick film is observing a beautiful, artistic masterpiece come alive. It's almost postcard picturesque in each frame, that it's a visual treat whichever way you look at them, in alarmingly mesmerizing fashion that screams for your attention and lulls you into an optic trance.
It's also an understatement to say this film is ambitious. After all, a good portion of the first half dealt with Creation itself, how life evolved into what it is today, with scenes of nebulas, organisms, and even a moment where dinosaurs roamed the screen which I thought was a surprising move with compassion being showed by predator to prey. The visuals treats continued with the final scenes depicting the end of the world as we know it, as everything freezes over given the sun finally burning its last, and in ways reminded me of how grandeur its visuals are in similar fashion to how Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain had set out to be, only that Malick's film did it the more old school way through practical effects rather than to go it the computerized way.
The story sprawls in two uneven timelines, one the present where Sean Penn's character Jack still nurses a heartache with the loss of his brother during the war, and this, together with reminiscence of his memory of childhood both good, bad and confusing through the growing up years, form the bulk of the stories in Tree of Life. Here's where we get transported back to the 50s USA, where Brad Pitt plays the authoritative head of the O'Brien household, ruling his family with such an iron fist that his kids celebrate with enthusiasm the minute he steps out of the house, and go buck crazy when his job requires him to travel abroad. The perspectives as with a typical Malick film, cycles through each of the characters, from Pitt's Mr O'Brien, to his wife played by Jessica Chastain who has this angelic presence in a fiery household, and that of young Jack (Hunter McCracken)
While it depicts what would be suburban life in 50s Texas, it is the very human tales that get presented which you will likely be able to identify with, if you feel for it, and give this film a chance rather than to walk straight out when it gets perplexing. Like Life itself, things rarely occur in a linear, sequential fashion, and episodes here get played out in rather choppy fashion, sometimes repetitive through shots at different angles. The neighbours also get put under the spotlight occasionally with their very audible quarrels heard from outside their houses, in contrast to the O'Brien's, and that of their household's upbringing, with its stricter house rules always threatening to boil over and undo everything that's working for it.
Stealing the show from under the veteran casts' noses - Brad Pitt in what would be his most humble role in a long while as the typical strict paternal figure, and Sean Penn in a very underused, supporting role - was Hunter McCracken, with his intense gaze toward the screen ever so often, and looking dead ringer for a kid sized Sean Penn. He owned the role as a young boy turning rebellious as he stifles from being under a domineering dad, wait, father who doesn't mince his words when getting spoken back to, or to throw anyone out of the house for talking back. That gaze is worth the price of an admission ticket alone, as he struggles to escape from what he deemed as favouritism shown by his parents toward his siblings, seeking acceptance and love as he vents his frustrations through acts of vandalism, and theft too, in a scene that I felt was sexually charged though with nothing to see save for a lingerie being released into a running stream. Such is the brilliance of a Terrence Malick film, although there will be others who beg to differ.
Dialogue is kept minimal, and the soundtrack while awesome with its fair share of classical tunes, can be largely absent to a deafening silence. It may be jarring to sit through with character voiceovers shifting with nary a prompt, and images that come and go in a seemingly incoherent manner, but Tree of Life is still something to be experienced with an open mind given the instances of self-indulgence by the filmmaker, and to throw one's conventions of a film right out of the window in order to enjoy this sprawling effort, hopefully.