2011 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #497: The Tree of Life (2011)

Every year there seems to be one star who comes out of nowhere to be a household name and in 2011 that person was Jessica Chastain. We’ve already met Chastain via her Oscar-nominated performance in Zero Dark Thirty but a couple of years’ earlier it seemed like she was everywhere. In fact she was so ubiquitous that she featured in two of the nine films that were nominated for Best Picture at the following year’s ceremony.

First up we have her appearance as Mrs O’Brien in Terrence Malick’s oblique The Tree of Life. Chastain’s turn as the caring mother to a trio of sons in the 1950s, one of whom soon passes away towards the start of the film, was one of only a handful of the movie’s positive elements. The film is sort of seen through the perspective of a modern day Jack O’Brien who is reflecting on his harsh upbringing at the hands of his tyrannical father. Rather than presenting any sort of coherent narrative, Malick instead presents the film as a series of scenes in Jack’s life. The majority of the movie depicts his childhood as quite a bleak time due to the fact that his father would often fly into a rage at a moment’s notice. From criticising his sons’ behaviour at the dinner table to teaching them how to fight, it’s fair to say that Mr O’Brien will never win father of the year. However, Malick depicts Chastain’s character in a more sympathetic light as she’s more able to forgive her son when he does something a little mischievous. Whilst a coming-of-age film is nothing new, Malick’s film comments on all existence featuring as it does a twenty minute sequence which shows us the beginning of time. The fact that dinosaurs appear in a film that is primarily set in the 1950s is one of those pretentious aspects of The Tree of Life that I don’t like. That sentiment is echoed in my feelings about the end of the film where Jack is what I assume is the afterlife and is confronted by his mother and father as well as other people who have touched his life. Whilst I always applaud film-makers who think outside the box I do think that Malick is somebody who didn’t actually ever see the box. Indeed, this feels more like an art instillation than a coherent movie which I’m assuming is why the critics loved it so much.

The Tree of Life is one of those films that critics love because it makes them seem intelligent but I feel that if they looked at it objectively then there’s very little of worth here. Chastain’s aforementioned performance as the matriarchal figure showcases why she became such a breakout star in that year. Her facial expressions convey her character’s inner torment and she is able to balance the fear Mrs O’Brien feels towards her husband with the love she has for her children. Chastain is more impressive than either of her A-list co-stars, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn who play Mr O’Brien and the adult Jack respectively. Pitt just wasn’t convincing as a harsh father figure whilst Penn hardly appears and when he does he just looks wistfully into the sky. I believe my main issue with The Tree of Life was that I felt detached from it throughout its two hour plus running time. Even though there were some parts of the narrative that hung together, Malick did little to make us care about his characters. I do remember going to see the film at the cinema and at the time there were roadworks happening outside which spoilt the quieter moments of the movie. However, I did prefer to listen the rather irritating noises that watch some of the more outlandish scenes that Malick decided to include in his film.
I was actually quite surprised that The Tree of Life garnered nominations in the Best Picture and Director categories as it doesn’t seem like your typical Oscar film. It does appear to me that this is the Academy’s way of trying to look like they enjoy arthouse cinema however this was the same year that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was up for the prize. In fact the only deserving nomination that The Tree of Life received was in the cinematography category which was one of the only elements of the film that deserved celebrating. Ultimately The Tree of Life is a pretentious piece of arthouse cinema that critics go potty over but normal people like me hate with a passion.


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