out of Five
Running time: 138
Beautifully shot, stunningly edited and superbly acted, Malick's long-awaited latest project is part childhood memoir, part metaphysical fantasy and part visual poem encompassing the beginning of life itself. It's a film that will mean different things to different people and is, quite simply, unmissable.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life stars Sean Penn as Jack O'Brien (although names are hardly ever heard in the film), a troubled Chicago businessman who looks back over his childhood (now played by Hunter McCracken) growing up in 1950s Waco, Texas with his strict, mercurial oil company worker (and frustrated musician) father (Brad Pitt), his nurturing, flame-haired mother (Jessica Chastain) and his two younger brothers, RL (Laramie Eppler, whose resemblance to Pitt is extraordinary) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).
As the kaleidoscopic narrative unfolds, we see Jack's frequent clashes with his father, witness several coming-of-age-style incidents and learn that one of his brothers (we're not sure which one) died in what we assume is the Vietnam War, though we also see the creation of the universe itself and even catch a glimpse of a couple of dinosaurs.
The film unfolds as a continually flowing impressionistic montage (The River of Life might have been a better title), with very little in the way of traditional narrative cohesion beyond a general 'snapshots of childhood' theme; though, for what it's worth, a glimpse at Malick's own background suggests that the film is strongly autobiographical.
However, what gives the film its extraordinary power is that the recognisably real footage (there's minimal dialogue throughout) seamlessly blends with dreamlike imagery both understandable (a wonderful, breath-taking sequence where Chastain seems to dance in the air) and completely baffling (a disturbing shot of a tall man and a little boy in an attic that wouldn't be out of place in a David Lynch movie).
The performances are terrific, particularly McCracken (his impression of his angry father is one of many delightful moments), Eppler (whose facial expressions alone are heartbreaking), Pitt and Chastain. The film is also beautifully scored and features some extraordinary special effects, courtesy of 2001: A Space Odyssey's FX maestro Douglas Trumbull, who was coaxed out of retirement especially.
The Tree of Life is an extraordinary, profoundly moving and beautifully made film that's unlike anything else you'll see this decade, let alone this year. Unmissable.