The Tree of Life (2011) – 4/5

Long and self-indulgent, especially at the beginning, but pretty brilliant otherwise, depicting arguably one of the most realistic portrayals of childhood ever put to screen. And Brad Pitt gives his finest performance ever in this film. Not award worthy, mind you, but finally, a dramatic role he’s mostly suited for. About time for an actor long considered one of the most famous in the world. See how far good looks get you in life?  All the way to the top, and you don’t even have to be particularly talented in your respective field to do so.

The beginning birth of the universe and rise and fall of life on Earth is way too long and mostly pointless. It’s pretty at times, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot and is, most grievously, not very interesting. And it just goes on and on for a good hour; it was almost torture sitting through it. And the ghostly, disconnected voice-overs just added to the overall cheese of the thing. It should have been cut out, or reduced significantly. Maybe instead of an hour of pointless, but pretty, visuals, just 20 minutes?

Luckily the film kicks into gear when things actually start happening, and the sad, nostalgic, hyper realistic and extremely well acted story unfolds, and it’s brilliant. It’s such a simple story, yet there’s so much emotion and realism to it all, it’s almost frightening. How in the hell did they get such performances out of the kids in this film? And Brad Pitt, whose presence as the overbearing but ultimately well-meaning father is at the heart of the story, actually shows some acting chops here. I can understand why this film won all the awards it did despite being a narrative mess at the beginning. It’s just magical at times. Movie magic at its best.

The ending is also confusing and has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story, as was Sean Penn come to think of it whose only purpose here seems to be to aimlessly stagger around vast landscapes or look up at tall buildings confused while whispering disconnected phrases into the ears of the audience whenever I imagine the filmmakers thought they were starting to drift off. Huh? I’m sure there’s some deep metaphorical meaning to it all somewhere, but I just couldn’t make heads or tails of it. And the ending probably wouldn’t have been as annoying were it not so similar to the beginning, and as narratively incoherent. Props to the filmmakers for casting a little boy that looks just like a younger version of Penn during the childhood scenes, though.

Overall, hmm. A hard film to watch, sure, and yes, it could definitely have used a lot of trimming, especially at the beginning. If you stick with it, though, or can make it past the first hour or so without wanting to gouge out your eyes, you’ll be rewarded with a pretty great story about childhood and innocence and all that good stuff. For that alone, the film is worth a watch. Just be warned: it’s not for the impatient.

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