Movie reviews

IT’S TOO soon to rush to declare Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (12A) a masterpiece, but it is safe to say that there won’t be a more ambitious and thought-provoking film released this year.

Set for the most part in the US in the 1950s, it stars Brad Pitt as Mr O’Brien, an authoritarian father who repeatedly clashes with his eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken). An older Jack (Sean Penn) frames the narrative, as he reminisces about his childhood memories, and particularly those featuring his younger brother RL (a show-stealing turn from Laramie Eppler), whose early death triggers the film’s exploration of life, loss, faith and love. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Tree of Life attempts to incorporate life, the universe and everything. The oblique, impressionistic tone of Jack’s memories are spliced with jaw-dropping imagery taken from the microscopic and macroscopic ends of the universal spectrum, so that we find ourselves watching a human egg being fertilised, and that image then being contrasted with the almost unimaginably vast vista of cosmic gas clouds and nests of galaxies. Not content with that, Malick also offers a poetic reinterpretation of evolution on planet earth.

While there are times when you might wish Malick had focused more on the personal, and provided Penn in particular with a more rounded character to work with, the film is a wonderful example of what is possible when cinema is pushed to its furthest limits. Strong performances from Pitt, McCracken, Eppler and Jessica Chastain, as O’Brien’s wife, make flesh of the dreamy imagery, which seems to float off the screen in an authentic recreation of the way thoughts and memories waft through the mind. Their existence is dwarfed by the jaw-droppingly beautiful images of the universe at its most majestic, but it is their suffering and hard-earned consolation that endures long after the credits roll.

THE Guard (15A) stars Brendan Gleeson as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a Connemara-based Garda whose feckless existence is compromised when FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) appears in Galway on the hunt for a gang of international drug smugglers.

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of the award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh, The Guard employs the narrative structure of a conventional police procedural to unleash a wickedly black comedy of manners. The culture-clash between the focused and driven Everett and the irreverent and occasionally criminal Boyle is sharply observed, with Cheadle (who co-produces) content to play the straight man to Gleeson’s foul-mouthed stream of non sequiturs. Both actors are in fine fettle, and the rest of the cast — including Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Fionnula Flanagan — are happy to cruise along in their slipstream and heighten the surreal sense of humour, which is rooted in a very Irish resentment of authority in any form.

The latter stages flatten the characterisations as McDonagh sets in train a manic finale, which is a little too derivative of the comedy-crime caper staples to be truly satisfying, but for the most part The Guard is one of the funniest comedies of the year to date.

ITS backdrop proves the most interesting aspect of Holy Rollers (15A), a crime drama loosely based on true events from 1989 and set among the Orthodox Jewish Hassidic community in Brooklyn.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Sammy Gold, a morally upright young man seduced by the easy money to be made smuggling ecstasy from Europe, with the drugs being muled by Hassidic Jews, who were never searched on their re-entry to the US. Kevin Asch’s movie is strong on the cultural detail, and he establishes a very believable ultra-conservative background for Sammy to kick against.

Unfortunately, Sammy and his father, Mendel (Mark Ivanir), are the only characters to be fully fleshed out by screenwriter Antonia Macia, with the result that the story conforms to the conventional staples of the moralising drug movie. Asch maintains a neatly judged pace and palpable tension. The result is a solid crime caper set in a quirky hinterland, with Eisenberg in excellent form.

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