This outrageously ambitious film from director Terrence Malick begins modestly enough: a mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram from the military advising that her son has been killed in action (presumably in Vietnam). Flashback to earlier days, the ill-fated child but a babe in his doting mother’s arms, and an unwelcome intrusion in the world of his first-born toddler brother, Jack.
There is nothing extraordinary about this family. They could be any family of the time, their home any suburban home in the American Midwest of the 50s. The head of the household (Brad Pitt) rules the roost. He has dutifully sacrificed his dream of becoming a professional musician to fulfil his male provider role, holding down a secure managerial position in a local factory. He is the stereotypical husband/father of the time, a decent man who makes the big decisions and expects his wife to abide by them. More than a stereotype, she is the archetypal maternal figure, endlessly nurturing and fiercely protective of her children. She is mostly willing to play the subservient wifely role expected of her, but rears up in protest when her husband’s stern fathering goes too far and traumatises the boys.
Jack, as the eldest, locks horns with his father from an early age, and this problematic relationship is a thread that runs through time, drawing the adult Jack (Sean Penn) back to his childhood as he sifts through his memories seeking…what? Resolution? Innocence lost in the inevitably brutalising experience of childhood? A temporary escape from the dehumanising and geometrically oppressive architectural steel and glass cage of contemporary urban corporate life in which he has somehow ended up entrapped?
Abruptly, from the realist opening on the small stage of the suburban Midwest of the 50s and the flash-forward to adult Jack in his corporate environment, the film shapeshifts stylistically into cinematic poetry and lifts off into another dimension – literally! It’s whacko, bewildering, and audacious beyond measure, as we zoom out to the edges of time and space, yea to the very moment of the Big Bang!
From the genesis of existence, we move through the expanding universe of stars to our solar system, and from there to the boiling volcanic surface of the new-born Earth. Then comes the cooling and the waters that form the oceans, womb to the holiest of moments – the creation of first life out of chaotically spiralling DNA. We track the evolution of that life into plants, and vertebrates, which eventually haul themselves out of the primordial soup on to dry land…
The combination of incredible camera work with CGI yields fantastic cosmic theatre on a grand scale. But in amongst all this spectacle there is one image of random violence that stands out as truly unforgettable – almost up with that of the ape throwing the bone that transforms into a spaceship in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. An injured dinosaur lies dying; another hops over to investigate, stares down quizzically at the prone form panting its last, and stamps on its head, pinning it to the ground. You assume this to be the action of a hungry predator, but rather than tearing at the flesh of its prey, it leaves the beast to die, hopping off into the distance in profound indifference, content merely to inflict a cruel act of dominance on its unfortunate victim.
Here we come to a theme that is central to the movie: the paradoxical co-existence of brute nature and spiritual grace that shapes all life, from the individual to the cosmic. Out of that theme arise age-old questions that go to the core of metaphysics, and that can only be approached in figurative or poetic terms. Is there justice? Is there divine justice? Is there a God? And if so, what is the nature of our relationship with him/her/it?
The answers are not always writ large. Back on the small stage of Midwest suburbia, which initially seems ludicrously trivial in the context of the epic cosmic journey we’ve just been on, young Jack and his brothers encounter a work gang of abjectly miserable chained prisoners in the process of being taken back to jail. Jack asks his mother, “Can that happen to anyone?” I do not recall what she answers, if anything, but the question has been ringing in my ears ever since. Not so trivial after all! Paradox is everywhere.
On another occasion, ruminating on the shocking burns scars of a peer, Jack puts a question to God that has resonated down through the ages: “If you do bad things, why shouldn’t I?” Out of the mouths of babes…
If Malick dares to cinematically imagine the beginning of time, is he going to be content to end this massive movie anywhere short of Armageddon? Well, I ain’t telling. What do you think I am – a spoiler? I’ll just say that I found the imagery at the end of the movie unaccountably moving.
It’s irrefutably admirable, of course, that a filmmaker should extend himself as Malick has here. Visions don’t come any bigger than this. Life, the universe, everything…what else is there? I think it especially courageous artistically that a director would attempt this movie in a time of pervasive irony, and thus knowlingly leave himself open to derision, lampooning, and charges of self-indulgence and perhaps pretentiousness.
Artistic courage aside, what of the film itself? Does it work? Yes and no.
In my view, the movie over-reaches itself and may justly be described as grandiose. Further, as spectacular an imaginative and technical feat as the cosmic theatre element is, its connection with Jack and his adult reminiscences and quest for meaning is not made sufficiently clear. I was lost in parts, but so intrigued – dazzled, in fact – that I wouldn’t have missed the rest of the ride. Thus, for me, the narrative coherence issue was problematic, but not a fatal flaw.
The writing is powerful. Much of the movie is accompanied by whispered voiceovers that could stand alone as poetry. Poetic prose, anyway. And you sense that the power of the writing, and indeed that of the movie, resides in Malick’s deeply personal investment in it all. Essentially, this work is the artistic and metaphorical embodiment of his anguished engagement with a God he is striving to understand, and we are the privileged witnesses.
The performances are all terrif. Jessica Chastain brings a wonderful maternal humanity to her role, and was the standout performer for me. Brad Pitt nails the emotionally under-expressed 50s father figure, decent to the marrow but misguided in his priorities, an unwitting victim of the times. Sean Penn doesn’t have enough to do, perhaps, but makes good of his limited screen time. The kids, all first-timer actors, are excellent, as kids always are.
What more can I say? Plenty, actually, but I’ve gone on long enough. Besides, this is a movie that, like any poetic work, is open to interpretation. My take will not necessarily be your take, and that is as it should be in any art of substance that grapples with the great unanswerables. The Tree Of Life or the Tower of Babel? See it and decide for yourself.
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