July 30, 2011


New Zealand International Film Festival: beginulate! I have 55 films I'm hoping to see over the 17 days this year and while that may seem a lot, it's just what I do each year. Last night marked the start of the 40th NZIFF in Wellington and I guess my first full film of the Festival is quite the pick. The entire film is just about as far away from a "typical Hollywood" film as you could get (but starring two of the most respected and well known Hollywood actors). This year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, it has already played in the States to some polarised audiences. And, evidently this audience was unsure what to expect either as there were a number of walk-outs - notably in the last 2 minutes of the film.

To be fair, I'm not entirely certain what my own expectations for the film were but knowing Malick's previous work, I was sure there was going to be a focus on nature and large digressions around that. Well, The Tree of Life has that and then some. It is a beautiful film, with long moments that can only be described as cinematic poetry. There comes a point where you just have to give yourself up to it and let the wonder wash over and around you. These periods of visual trippiness and beauty easily give Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey a run for its money. In fact, the centre-piece of the film is the bravura sequence that includes the creation of the earth, the shaping of the planet, pre-history, dinosaurs before finally leading up to the birth of the O'Brien's first son, Jack. 

The Tree of Life is not a narrative film in the often seen sense of the word. There is no strong narrative throughline, instead the body of the film is taken up with Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (an uncompromising Brad Pitt and an ethereal Jessica Chastain) and there three boys growing up in 1950's Texas. Brad Pitt takes the role of Mr. O'Brien - a bastard of a father, he who must be feared and respected - and completely owns it. His physicality is impressive, saying much with just a hunch and the set of his jaw. Chastain too is impressive as the more kind-hearted and all too-often put upon mother and she carries a difficult role with grace. Which is fitting, as this is (as far as I can read) what she represents. Dichotomy and binary opposition are in constant play and reflection throughout the film: selfish nature and self-less grace; Mrs. O'Brien and Mr. O'Brien; the micro and the macro; the natural world and the city; the past and the present.

As great as the two adults are, it is the three boys who are at the centre of it all and they are impressive. Malick has pulled off the trick of capturing boys... just being boys: they run and play and fight and get in trouble. But they are also boys whose eyes, especially when their father is around, dull a little. Hunter McCracken as the young Jack (later Sean Penn) is an especial marvel, carrying no sense of being a "Hollywood child" and instead just quietly carrying a lot of the film. 

The film isn't perfect, and you could argue that some of it veers towards the unintelligible and pretentious. What you cannot call The Tree of Life (and Malick) is unambitious. Malick constantly pushes the camera in and out, always creating a sense of movement and filling the film with small surprises. Each shot, each frame is a small work of visual art, as they often are with Malick's films. This is a film of beauty and wonder, sadness and life, nature and religion. I look forward to seeing it again.

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