1950-set drama from filmmaking master Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line), starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Opens nationwide on Thursday, click for movie times and more info.
“Toscanini once recorded a piece 65 times,” says frustrated musician Brad Pitt to his three young sons (led by Hunter McCracken). “You know what he said when he finished? ‘It could be better.’” Malick put a similar level of artistic endeavour into this much-lauded near-masterpiece. An attempt to come to terms with the suicide of his brother (represented here by Laramie Eppler), this is a film so intimate it fictionalises the director’s childhood recollections, and so ambitious it rewinds back to the beginning of time to do so. Adaptation tried the same thing, albeit as a gag.
In the first 45 minutes alone we witness the Big Bang, CG dinosaurs and the birth of mankind, as Sean Penn (McCracken as an adult), Pitt and long-suffering mother/wife Jessica Chastain beg the universe for answers. It’s confounding, borderline pretentious, stuff, but there’s no denying the emotional weight it lends – imagine flicking through a Bible and someone’s baby book at once.
Shot as if by an all-seeing deity, and edited like a stream-of-consciousness Stand By Me, the middle section of the film is the most affecting. We watch McCracken and co buckle under Pitt’s brutal tutelage and blossom in their mother’s love, Penn/Malick’s memories wafting back willy-nilly like sunshine through the clouds. Perhaps impatient viewers should consider the film’s more cosmic concerns as extravagant bookends to a beautiful – if baffling – family drama. Could The Tree of Life be shorter, clearer, easier to grasp? For sure. Could it be better? Not a chance.