When Tree of Life was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year Twitter was alive with tales of the lines of critics trying to claim seats for that most anticipated and rare of movie treats (apparently), a Terrence Malick movie. These come along approximately once every six years and therefore are to be treated with a certain amount of celebration, not to mention trepidation. Once the critics emerged on the other side of a movie approximately 138 minutes in length, opinion was – trying to think of the right word… mixed.
The rest of us have had to wait a little longer for Tree of Life but last week I was pleased to grab the chance to see a film that, no matter what some critics said, appeared beguiling in its promise of the portrayal of a family and the place of family love and a person’s life in the considerably wider context of the movement of the universe. It’s taken me two full days to write about the experience because of several factors. I’ll list them: a) my sheer disappointment that Tree of Life is as pretentious as I believed it wouldn’t be and b) beautiful photography, stirring music, fine actors, does not a good film make.
At this point I would normally give you the plot. Tree of Life doesn’t appear to have one. Films don’t have to have a plot – just look at the wonderful Life in a Day. But it does need a progression, a point. In Tree of Life we are presented with a family in 1950s’ Texas, headed by Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) who loves his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his three boys but, as we get to know, and we get to know him hardly at all, this is expressed in violence. The kind of violence that some may dismiss as a God-fearing strict upbringing. Among the sons is Jack, whom we see years on played by Sean Penn. We see him trying to come to terms with the aftermath of a family tragedy on his father and mother. But it goes beyond that and he is soon trying to understand life, faith and the universe (mostly while walking around on a beach with his shoes off and looking focused).
There doesn’t seem much here to fill a film of over two hours and indeed there isn’t. In the first hour there are some stunning images of space – planets and nebulae set against the most stirring music. You can’t help but reflect on your own life. How unimportant it is and yet how significant it is. I felt uplifted by this. But then we have another hour and a half of… I really couldn’t tell you what because it left no impression on me other than to make me look at my watch a lot and realise I wouldn’t miss much if I took out my kindle and read a chapter or two.
One wonders what on earth Brad Pitt, the most beautiful Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn were doing committing themselves to something that gave them less than a couple of lines each for the entire two hours plus. But maybe they too were captivated by a promise of the explanation of life amidst a wonderful and unknowing and vast universe. I hope they weren’t as disappointed as I was by what they given.