Terrence Malick’s fifth feature, his first since 2005′s The New World, is a beautiful, tonal meditation on life. Malick’s staples are all present and correct, though his preoccupation with nature is now more thematically focal than ever. The film is ambitious and spectacular.
Its centrepiece is an American family. Three children and their parents, the latter played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, grow up together in Texas. Their story is folded into layers of naturalistic imagery and bookended by out-of-time sequences; their development as a family is crucial, essential, irresistible, and yet, Malick is trying to tell us, ultimately incidental. That isn’t to say it is meaningless, however; on the contrary, as Mrs. O’Brien tells us in her voiceover: “The only way to be happy in life is to love.”
Voiceovers and whispered commentaries provide gentle grounding to ethereal sequences with no direct relevance to the story. These sequences are mesmeric; the film as whole is outrageously beautiful. Malick is known for his unique camera work but his some of his shot-making here is breathtaking. His camera dances with his characters, holds them close and casts them away; embraces and enjoys them. An extended sequence abstractly detailing the genesis of life on earth – set to a soaring orchestral backdrop – is the most staggering of the lot. In terms of sheer emotional resonance, this ambitious and resolutely unpretentious jaunt is an unmatched feat; the remainder of the film, while breathtaking in its own way, is more subtle.
The main narrative arc – that of the O’Brien family – is played languidly, as the boys run and play on their wide lawns, shooting air rifles aimlessly in rivers and rolling in the mud. These sequences form the memories of eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) whose preoccupation with the past reminds us that while time may heal all wounds, it cannot close them completely. Pitt’s performance as Mr. O’Brien – the stern but loving head of the household – is tremendous; opposite him, Jessica Chastain (soon to become a huge name) plays her more sentimental character with charismatic ease; she is radiant, loving, believable. As she washes her feet with the garden hose, we realise how sensory an experience this film is; the memories in this case are Jacks, but they could be anybody’s. They could be our own. The performances by the children – lead by Hunter McCracken as the young jack – are largely dialogue free but are nonetheless intoxicating. Through Malick’s lens, the simplest shots – a child’s hand clutching the side of a bathtub, a dog lapping at a puddle in the road – are rendered immeasurably beautiful; he illuminates this part of the film in unexpectedly touching asides. He searches for and often finds the natural poetry around us at any given time.
The film’s ethereal sensibility is helped by the score, which is rousing, or otherwise entirely absent, when it needs to be. The sound design in general is extraordinarily good; voices come from nowhere, fade away, spring from visual catalysts or are simply sucked into the undulating music and lost forever.
Reviewing this film was not easy. It is difficult to explain quite how I felt about it. I did not think that it was perfect – the ending is surprisingly lacking and the mid-section, while spellbinding, is perhaps a little too languorous for its own good – but I measure the film’s success by the effect it had on me; by the images and feelings it has left with me. And it stirs me to think on it now.