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Masand: 'The Tree of Life' is profound, poetic


Rajeev Masand,CNN-IBN
Aug 05, 2011 at 09:39pm IST

Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

Director: Terrence Malick

'The Tree Of Life' is a hugely ambitious film. It polarizes audiences, calling for endless discussions and debate on what it's trying to say through its relentless visual ideas. This Palme D'Or winner is a modern mindbender. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes 'The Tree Of Life' a deeply personal film, dipping into his own childhood, but all the while questioning God, his reasons for inflicting suffering, the beauty of life, and the ambiguity and the inexplicable nature of death.

And yet, through its all-encompassing but fragmented narrative, Malick makes 'The Tree Of Life' almost inscrutable to many viewers. As the film veers off from the 1950s suburban neighborhood in which the story is set to depict the cosmic wonder of how our earth was created, you end up feeling a sense of displacement yourself. These chapters are visually arresting - you watch volcanoes erupting, dinosaurs stalking, hammerhead sharks swimming about, and some endless shots of our protagonist Jack (played by Sean Penn) wandering aimlessly through what seems like the Grand Canyon. It's all beautiful cinema, but honestly also a test of your patience and wildly indulgent. Yet anyone familiar with Terrence Malick's filmmaking style will know of his love for taking long, lingering shots to emphasize his ideas.

Despite this, you're sucked into the parallel world that the director paints for you - the one of Jack's early life in suburban America, unfolding in flashes of the older Jack's memory. An architect now, surrounded by the cold walls of glass and concrete, Jack questions why his brother was taken away, and the meaning of death. We're transported to his childhood dominated by a disciplinarian father and an angelic mother. Jack's parents (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are introduced to us as Nature and Grace. The father has the inflexible, harsh discipline of Nature, while the mother embodies the beauty of love through Grace. In a way, you interpret these as Malick's ideas of God - that there are two sides to spirituality as well.

The director infuses these memories with such colour that the leafy Texas suburb almost comes alive - in particular, many can identify with that scene of little Jack and his younger brothers joyfully trailing the DDT truck as it billows clouds of smoke into their neighborhood.

This often idyllic childhood is also tempered by a strict upbringing, laid down by the father. Played excellently by Brad Pitt, we see the dad as a frustrated musician, stuck in the more banal world of engineering. He takes his role as a father very seriously, and so the boys adhere to a rigid structure of church, music, chores, and good manners.

'The Tree of Life' also delves into the lessons life teaches you - a rebellious Jack knows when he's gone too far, and repents for his mistakes. Again you notice the religious undertones of redemption and forgiveness. This theme also plays out in a realistic scene as Jack hurts his trusting younger brother with an air gun, then later asks to be forgiven.

Ultimately 'The Tree of Life' leaves you deliberating over its ideas, but you do tune off because of its heavy-handed and often repetitive narrative. There are just so many minutes that you can take of Jack's mother running playfully behind her boys, or of the camera caressing the crevices of landscapes.

I'm going with three out of five for 'The Tree of Life'. It's profound and poetic, yet requires much patience on the viewer's part. To be fair, director Terence Malick's beautiful yet self-indulgent film feels like the cinematic equivalent of watching a tree grow.

Rating: 3 / 5

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