Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2011. Cottonwood Pictures, River Road Entertainment, Brace Cove Productions, Plan B Entertainment. Screenplay by Terrence Malick. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Produced by Nigel Ashcroft, Greg Eliason, Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Production Design by Jack Fisk. Costume Design by Jacqueline West. Film Editing by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa. Academy Awards 2011. American Film Institute 2011. Boston Film Critics Awards 2011. Cannes Film Festival 2011. Gotham Awards 2011. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2011. National Board of Review Awards 2011. New York Film Critics Awards 2011. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2011. Washington Film Critics Awards 2011.
The generic title of Terence Malick’s family epic reveals generic content as Sean Penn works a highly successful but, presuming from the few scenes at his wealthy mansion, alienating life at home with his distant wife. He remembers being a child in the fifties with his domineering father (Brad Pitt) and ethereally passive mother (Jessica Chastain) and the wonders and challenges of life that he discovered at that age. Of course, Malick cannot be content to get to these memories without first giving us a tour of the earth’s first post-Big Bang beginnings, complete with exploding lava, evolving sea animals and even a few dinosaurs before switching to the era of post-war prosperity. Given that there is very little outright dialogue and most of the talking is mumbled out of people’s minds, it feels less like a movie and more like an epic-length montage, or even more appropriately given the perfectly beautiful images, a really long screen saver. Malick’s movies are always pristinely gorgeous and this one is no exception; you can hardly spend a moment without seeing something that takes your breath away, but the characters are far too broad to be worth hooking ourselves onto. If he is making a blanket statement about family and life, he is conveniently leaving out the billions of people on the planet who are not middle-class, white and American; these people are more symbols than details, and by the time we get to a scene where Hunter McCracken, excellently playing the younger Penn, breaks into a posh neighbour’s home and starts rummaging through their stuff without incident or confrontation, we know that this film is as averse to dramatic conflict as it is to any kind of narrative commitment. Pitt excels at the scenes where he puts aside his bitter frustrations to show his three sons some fatherly love, but he has no dark side and is not as convincing in the character’s more tyrannical moments. It’s a film that is all theme and no meaning, and despite its aesthetic distractions, is exceptional for how hollow and unimportant it is.