Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

July 29, 2011

Grace is gone

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:03 pm

July 29, 2011

Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken

Director: Terrence Malick

The Tree Of Life is a hugely ambitious film. It polarizes audiences, calling for endless discussions and debate on what it’s trying to say through its relentless visual ideas. This Palme D’Or winner is a modern mind-bender. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes The Tree Of Life a deeply personal film, dipping into his own childhood, but all the while questioning God, his reasons for inflicting suffering, the beauty of life, and the ambiguity and the inexplicable nature of death.

And yet, through its all-encompassing but fragmented narrative, Malick makes The Tree Of Life almost inscrutable to many viewers. As the film veers off from the 1950s suburban neighborhood in which the story is set to depict the cosmic wonder of how our earth was created, you end up feeling a sense of displacement yourself. These chapters are visually arresting – you watch volcanoes erupting, dinosaurs stalking, hammerhead sharks swimming about, and some endless shots of our protagonist Jack (played by Sean Penn) wandering aimlessly through what seems like the Grand Canyon. It’s all beautiful cinema, but honestly also a test of your patience and wildly indulgent. And yet anyone familiar with Terrence Malick’s filmmaking style will know of his love for taking long, lingering shots to emphasize his ideas.

Despite this, you’re sucked into the parallel world that the director paints for you – the one of Jack’s early life in suburban America, unfolding in flashes of the older Jack’s memory. An architect now, surrounded by the cold walls of glass and concrete, Jack questions why his brother was taken away, and the meaning of death. We’re transported to his childhood dominated by a disciplinarian father and an angelic mother. Jack’s parents (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are introduced to us as Nature and Grace. The father has the inflexible, harsh discipline of Nature, while the mother embodies the beauty of love through Grace. In a way, you interpret these as Malick’s ideas of God – that there are two sides to spirituality as well.

The director infuses these memories with such color that the leafy Texas suburb almost comes alive – in particular, many can identify with that scene of little Jack and his younger brothers joyfully trailing the DDT truck as it billows clouds of smoke into their neighborhood.

This often idyllic childhood is also tempered by a strict upbringing, laid down by the father. Played excellently by Brad Pitt, we see the dad as a frustrated musician, stuck in the more banal world of engineering. He takes his role as a father very seriously, and so the boys adhere to a rigid structure of church, music, chores, and good manners.

The Tree of Life also delves into the lessons life teaches you – a rebellious Jack knows when he’s gone too far, and repents for his mistakes. Again you notice the religious undertones of redemption and forgiveness. This theme also plays out in a realistic scene as Jack hurts his trusting younger brother with an air gun, then later asks to be forgiven.

Ultimately The Tree of Life leaves you deliberating over its ideas, but you do tune off because of its heavy-handed and often repetitive narrative. There are just so many minutes that you can take of Jack’s mother running playfully behind her boys, or of the camera caressing the crevices of landscapes.

I’m going with three out of five for The Tree of Life. It’s profound and poetic, yet requires much patience on the viewer’s part. To be fair, director Terence Malick’s beautiful yet self-indulgent film feels like the cinematic equivalent of watching a tree grow.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

7 Comments »

  1. It looks like you are reviewing the movie keeping the typical Indian viewer in mind. But isn’t that in a way, doing injustice to the “absolute” quality of the movie? Keeping the awards, accolades and critical reception that this piece of film-making has received, doesn’t a movie like this “deserve” the patience you speak about ? I’d say this was surrealism at its peak, a breath-taking juxtaposition of elements of life, love, loss and death.

    Comment by Gokul — July 30, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  2. striking the chord

    Comment by Anubhav — July 30, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

  3. You are correct…. audience to bollywood movies shouldn’t watch these kind of films… because after watching this film, i just CAN NOT make myself watch any current age bollywood movies…
    Give low reviews to such a masterpiece so that people do not even go to the theatre to watch them…

    If you cannot stand the majestic and so termed by you as a repetitive plot, than you should also just stand in the queue for getting a ticket to Ready or Singham or Bheja Fry… seeking cheap drama, not education and leaving the cinema.

    Because there is no integrity left in your reviews – whether hollywood or bollywood… don’t know from what point of view you watch a film…

    Comment by Mayank Gupta — July 30, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

  4. 3 to this and 2 to Singham…!!! Tell me what criterion you put forth?

    Comment by Mayank Gupta — July 30, 2011 @ 9:01 pm

  5. @mayank: I think Rajeev Sir is right.. Because he is reviewing these movies for Indian viewers. And brother there may be a EXCEPTIONAL lot in the country like you who love watching such movies but this review is just not for the smart guys only. It comprises the MASS and i HATE to say this but THE MASS is not as smart as you are to watch such masterpieces. So though sometimes Rajeev sir wants to EXPRESS his SHEER JOY in watching such movies, he has to give such HYPOCRITICAL reviews. Its not easy being a CRITIC brother. I totally agree with the 3 stars Sir has given.
    P. S. The 5 star scale for BOLLYWOOD is different to the 5 star scale for HOLLYWOOD.. You should get that PSYCH to understand this logic..
    Adios and enjoy watching movies.

    Comment by Jay — July 31, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  6. Reviews and judgements about a movie can never be absolute – they are just the state of mind of the reviewer while watching the movie. Reviews are only pointers for one to decide whether to watch the movie or not – and after that – the viewer has the figure out all by himself how good or bad the movie is – and it is even better if the viewer doesnt make any judgements. And for ‘The Tree of Life’ – I just allowed myself to watch the movie and made no judgments or analysis while walking out – just the sheer joy of watching it without any mental filters was enough.

    From my perspective, any movie for which Rajeev gives 3 + is worth watching on the big screen if you have the time.

    Comment by Thyag — August 5, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  7. @Jay: That’s right and thats what I acknowledged by saying that don’t give high ratings to movies which may not strike a chord with the usual audience… Even I didn’t refer this film to many of my own friends… this is a completely different genre and method that the usual cinema-goer doesn’t expect…

    But, this also does not claim a low rating of 3, even taking into account the difference in scales for bollywood and hollywood films. The critic may lose the respect if the followers find him giving low ratings to the films he sounded to like while reviewing others.

    As Gokul says, it does injustice to the “absolute” quality of the film.

    Comment by Mayank Gupta — August 7, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

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