Terrence Malick’s Cannes film festival Palme d’Or winner is a work that has some viewers swooning in rapture yet leaves others baffled and bored. It looks fabulous, full of luminous and lyrical images, but the plot and meaning are tricky to pin down.
The film appears to be semi-autobiographical, at least in part, with the bulk of the action taking place in a nostalgically remembered 1950s Texas as recalled years later by Sean Penn’s middle-aged Jack. (Malick grew up in Waco, Texas.) Played as a boy by a warily intense Hunter McCracken, Jack is the eldest of three sons of a disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) and gentle mother (Jessica Chastain), his childhood a mix of feral adventures outdoors with his brothers and friends, and intense battles of wills indoors with his stern father.
The narrative is far from straightforward. Overlaid with a poetic voiceover reminiscent of Malick’s other films (Badlands and Days of Heaven from the 1970s and the more recent The Thin Red Line and The New World), the story flits back and forth in the way of fragmentary memories. Early on, we learn of a family tragedy and the film veers off into a bizarre exploration of the mysteries of Creation, visiting the origins of life on Earth in a stunning montage of images embracing everything from volcanoes to dinosaurs.
Profound or pretentious? Take your pick. (As for me, I struggled with the dream-like coda set on a beach, which seems to offer Jack redemptive closure.) Whether or not you go along with Malick’s philosophical musings about the ‘way of nature’ and the ‘way of grace’ (the alternative life paths offered by father and mother), his brilliantly acted and photographed film evokes the emotional turmoil of childhood, its resentment, pains and joys in a way that few other filmmakers can match.
Released on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 31st October from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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