With just four movies stretching in almost 40 years of his directing career, reclusive director Terrence Malick's highly-anticipated and long-awaited fifth feature, THE TREE OF LIFE, had recently awarded the coveted Palme d' Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. It was a surprise anyway, considering most viewers has booing off the movie during the screening premiere. Not only that, THE TREE OF LIFE has also been compared to Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). No doubt that from the outlook of the movie, Malick has made a daring and extraordinary approach to explore the wonders of life, the mysteries of death, and the creation of the universe in the utmost spiritual and philosophical point-of-view. The result is a visually elegant, avant-garde drama that is both mystifying and fascinating piece of cinematic experience. However it's hardly the kind of so-called overwhelming masterpiece many critics has been praising all over for this movie. More on that later.
THE TREE OF LIFE opens with a passage from the Book of Job, which quotes God -- "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth... when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" -- before the movie gradually hits a heartbreaking note that the 19-year-old middle son of a married couple, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), has been killed. (Their son's death is never explained). No doubt losing a child is the worst thing ever happened for any parents, and the O'Briens are certainly very devastated. Mr. O'Brien blames himself for being too harsh on his dead son, while Mrs. O'Brien is losing sense of purpose to live her life anymore.
Cut to the present day, the middle-aged eldest son of the O'Briens, Jack (Sean Penn), is still haunted by the death of his brother. Despite being a successful architect working and living in the big city, he feels "lost" and looks very weary.
Terrence Malick's screenplay is hardly conventional and those regular viewers who watches it might find this a very frustrating experience. Instead the narrative is kept to the minimum (which is frequently replaced by whispery voiceovers) and everything are episodic at best. Like his last movie in 2005's THE NEW WORLD, Malick is never quite adept when comes to storytelling form. This is particularly evident during the second half of the movie, which depicts the ongoing life of three teenage sons of the O'Briens, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). During this long stretch alone, the movie feels heavy-handed and could have done a lot of trimming to cut down its unnecessary 138-minute length. Then there's the final 20 minutes, in which Malick has concluded his picture far too abstract and too impenetrable to understand what he is trying to imply here (e.g.: the visual metaphors depicting few characters walking hand in hand on a deserted beach, a final image of a bridge).
However THE TREE OF LIFE remains a stunning motion picture to behold for. Emmanuel Lubezki's constantly mobile camerawork, which he uses a lot of wide-angle lenses, is simply mesmerizing. Likewise, Malick is such a meticulous visual stylist who understands the beauty of sight and sound. Here he favors a lot of tight closeups, tilted angles, and low-angle shots in such an intimate composition. Working with acclaimed composer Alexandre Desplat, the music plays a pivotal part in this movie and it shows gracefully as always as any Malick's work in the past. The various mix of classical music used here by Desplat is as hypnotizing as the movie itself.
But of all the visual splendors here, it is Malick's superb 15-minute interlude that depicts the creation of the universe, the origins of life, the era of the dinosaurs, and the events of a man rises on Earth. The special effects here are top-notch, not because how state-of-the-art the CGI is but rather brilliantly using old-school techniques as practical as possible to make the particular sequence in the utmost organic feel. Thanks to the great special effects creator Douglas Trumbull (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) served as a visual consultant here, viewers get to witness how awe-inspiring the images in all forms of astronomical, macro and microscopic levels, which includes scenes of a nebula expanding in outer space, shined by a volcanic eruption and such.
As for the actors, their performances are ranging from great to merely average. Brad Pitt is well-cast as a strict disciplinarian, who is particularly terrifying the way how he educates his kids. Up-and-coming actress Jessica Chastain is perfectly earthy and angelic as the vulnerable Mrs. O'Brien, while all three relatively unknowns (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) are outstanding as O'Briens' sons. McCracken is particularly excellent as the soulful and emotionally insecure Jack. However, Sean Penn is pretty much wasted in his limited screen time as the adult Jack. He's more of a puppet here, who spends time looking all weary and nothing else.
Overall, THE TREE OF LIFE is the kind of deeply meditative movie that acquired a certain taste. It's not for everybody, but those who are adventurous enough for something different, this movie remains worthwhile to check out for.