The enigma that is Terrence Malick. To many, he is a directorial master of artistic expression and philosopher. To the few, he’s a self indulgent and important twit. He may cut a remarkably shy figure in the eyes of the minions of a headline hungry media circus, but never when it comes to tackling the meaty issues in his films. Here, he lives up to his uncoventional billing by sticking the proverbial two fingers up to commericalism and the mainstream once again, going for the cinematic jugular.. and then some.
He attempts to tackle the true meaning of life and take us on a spiritual journey, making many religious nods along the way. In the early stages, we’re met with a quote from the Book of Job and frequent time shifts. But its key focus throughout and at its ambitious core lies the depiction of the O Brien Family, based in the U.S. state of Texas.
We have the Mother figure (Jessica Chastain), being the embodiment of love and her figure movements exuding elegance and grace. Almost angelic, if you like. On the other hand, the Father (Brad Pitt) is an inflictor of harsh discipline. He demands love without a distinctive reaction from his children, especially young Jack and although on the surface he seems an accomplished figure, he secretly nurses the heartache of his lifelong aspirations being ultimately crushed. The personality traits of both character seems to be the perfect translation of the intital murmured words of Chastain.. ‘There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. We choose which path we follow.’
In another time space, we bare witness to the older version of Jack, played by Oscar winner Sean Penn reminiscing about his childhood days and also how his relationships with various members of his family soon disintegrated. This is largely put down to a distinct loss of faith. But all three protagonists are united through one event.. the death of their son/brother R.L. at the age of 19.
Before we get any true sense of a reaction, Malick throws a curveball and takes us back in time. The dawn of time, to be exact. This queues a prolonged and astonishing montage of mesmerising imagery. Lava emerging from volcanoes, evolving cells and an understated clash between CGI dinosaurs, just to name a few. By this point, anyone expecting an easy to follow linear narrative should be prepared for a reality check.
Malick here chooses to rely on the piecing together of segments that may seem scattershot at first, but uses them as visual metaphors to get his message across instead of bamboozling the audience with heavy handed and potentially dumbed down dialogue to explain it to the masses. Luckily, it doesn’t result in a decrease in the film’s quality. The scattershot approach in my eyes may be deliberate to represent life in a true fashion. Many of us go through many days in life which perhaps reek of insignifcance and maybe it ultimately does hinge on singular events that shape long stretches of our existence.
There is no denying that the visuals, both naturalistic and cosmic in their style, exude beauty from every frame and is impeccably shot as always by Malick. The performances are certainly worth noting with Chastain as an engaging but low key tower of strength, being the perfect foil to Pitt’s powderkeg like intensity. But the real revelation has to be the virtual unknowns who play their children, who dominate the screen for the majority of the second half.
So overall, what does it all mean? My personal interpretation without providing significant details, is perhaps it’s centred around the idea of the rules of evolution and religion embedding together through the same human medium. This may explain a line of dialogue made by Jack about ‘forces wrestling inside of him’. In addition maybe it’s that sense of longing for the love of your family and the world around you, that as a concept has unfortunately diminished in the modern world, but Malick is so desperately trying to remind us of whether you’re religious or not.
Is the film for everyone? Emphatically NO and it’s hard to pinpoint the target audience. But i can’t think of many directors who would even dare to make such a film and release it in the midst of a summer, dominated by CGI heavy action sequences and contain cardboard cutout storylines/characters. There are many words i could use to describe it.. poignant, thought provoking, complex, astounding. But as Malick proves, actions speak louder than words and the power of the image is well and truly unrivalled. Open your mind, lose yourself in the wonder of it.. and prepare to be left speechless.