Weighty, overly ambitious, yet sporadically magical and intimate, this half-coming of age drama, half-religious meditation centers on the eldest son of a Waco, Texas family as he recalls his childhood as a middle-aged man. Details are interchangeable (the family has three boys, then two, then two and a girl without any fanfare), eschewed for a more grandiose, ethereal feel that director Terence Malick also shot for in The New World and The Thin Red Line, without the epic scale and narrative of those two movies. Malick’s sense of scale comes into play about 15 minutes or so into the movie, when the narrative deviates for what seems like ages, in an effort to explain man’s place in the universe by showing the infancy of existence, Earth, and then, later, life. This human-less interlude, with its phenomenal effects work, music, and slow, moody editing, could work in a more sprawling, fantastic narrative; contrasted with the family drama, however, it comes off as forced, unneccessary, and freaking BORING. If Malick had only opened the film with his FX montage of Earth’s history instead of sandwiching it between a very personal, immediate domestic drama, the film might’ve flowed more naturally and seamlessly, but as is, it remains a severely schizophrenic dramatic affair that seems to repeatedly undercut its own central themes and transcendental mood.
Another element of the film that is rather grating is the melding of religion with the Darwinian notion of evolution. Brad Pitt plays the patriarch of the family as a very stern, nearly menacingly strict failure of a man, whose dozen+ patents have brought him nothing but a lifetime as an expendable factory worker, and whose only hope at gaining worth in his life lies in his children. The interplay between the family under Pitt’s aggressor has a very spontaneous, hauntingly volatile feeling to it, which proves for entrancing drama, which is then contradicted by the repeated religious imagery that implies, none-so-subtly, that Pitt’s beleaguered, but God-fearing character is based on the Bible’s Job. If the house had been ensconced in religious fervor that actually played into the tension amongst the family members, this element may have proven ripe for exploration; as is, it comes off as an old, religious man attempting to convey the sense, and humanity, in one of the Bible’s most intrinsically and fundamentally flawed Books.
Pitt’s performance is the centerpiece of the film, for even when his character is gone on a business trip, the echo of his presence is still very much present in his household. When his wife and children jaunt freely in their backyard, we know that this event can only transpire in the absence of Pitt’s business-minded, overbearing figure. He is incredible in the role, shedding all of his Californian charm and warmth, while retaining a very dry, painfully transient sense of humor. Jessica Chastain, as the red-headed, feral matriarch, is also quite powerful and sympathetic as the mother bear who lives and dies by her cubs, but is blatantly impotent when matched against Pitt’s relentless aggression and practicality. The child actors are fairly incredible across the board, opening themselves up to conquer many moments which they could not have possibly fully understood while filming. Sean Penn kind of comes off as a loose end, for his bookending, present day-set scenes as the older version of the middle son seem cut from a completely different movie, and serve little purpose overall; his melancholia, and instant recognizability, work somewhat against the effect of the nostalgia-tinged Waco section. Overall, however, the performances are what keep the intimate family drama the drawing point of the picture, and render what could’ve been a complete misfire of a filmic experiment into a fairly intense, moving portrait of a family in the ’70s.
Slightly Recommended for thick-skinned cinephiles or Terence Malick fans; I would rate this above the ambiguous, misshapen The New World (I haven’t seen the director’s cut), but far below the grandiose splendor of Badlands or The Thin Red Line (Days of Heaven is permanently stapled onto my Netflix queue). This is certainly not the disaster some said it was, nor the transcendental, dreamy masterpiece others made it out to be, but rather a sporadically effective, but ultimately dismissable affair; I’d see Enter The Void, which is it’s spiritual cousin, before this.