Tree Of Life: Bad Casting

Kiri Blakeley
June 6, 2011
Tree Of Life: Bad Casting

Brad Pitt’s new movie Tree of Life won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and is being hailed by critics as “visionary” and “Kubrickian,” a film of “vast ambition,” and on par with 2001: A Space Odyessy.

I saw it last weekend, and while I agree with those accolades, and also that it is one of Brad Pitt’s finer and most nuanced performances, there was one grating, discordant note that made it virtually impossible for me to suspend disbelief: the casting of Jessica Chastain as Pitt’s wife and mother of his three rambunctious boys, one of whom grows up to be Sean Penn.

Here was the problem for me: As soon as she came on screen, Jessica Chastain's open, unlined, freckled, Orphan Annie face announced that she was clearly a good deal younger than Pitt. It turns out that Chastain is 30, and would have been 27 when she was cast in the film. This makes her 18 years younger than Pitt.

All right, I guess we’ve all gotten accustomed to much younger actresses playing the role of romantic lead to actors twice or thrice their age. I find it a bit annoying, but it’s par for the course these days. However, there was one highly important detail in Tree of Life that rendered Chastain’s age instantly regrettable: She was supposed to be the mother of a 19-year-old.

As soon as her son's age was mentioned, I was jarred out of the movie and began running math in my head. How old was she supposed to be when she gave birth to this child? If you go by Chastain’s actual age, she would have been eight.

Naturally, not too many actors are the same age of the character he or she is playing. However, shouldn’t the actor's real age at least be in the same decade as the presumed on-screen age? Given that this portion of the film takes place in the 1950s, and in Texas, one can safely assume that Chastain’s character would have begun having children at about 19 or 20. But at eight?!

In an interview with Metro newspaper, Chastain says she was initially vetted by producer Nick Gonda, and then later met with the director, Terrence Malick. She says that “a lot of famous actresses” were interested in the role. It’s quite possible that Malick truly felt that Chastain was the one and only actress who could play the role. Fine. But why not, at least in the scenes where she is supposed to be about 40, make her look about 40?

Yes, I get that the film isn’t literal. I get that the movie opens in space, with the stirrings of the beginnings of the universe. I get that there’s a scene with a dinosaur who takes pity on an injured fellow dinosaur and doesn’t crush it to death. None of which was real. But I also see that much care was taken with the CGI to make sure the dinosaurs, space, and pre-man Earth looked realistic. Why not ensure the same for your leading lady?

I also get that Jessica Chastain, with her luminous pale skin, flaming red hair, and otherworldly appeal, comes across as more of a Mother Earth archetype than an actual mother. Perhaps this is what director Terrence Malick was going for.

But I also know that it pulled me out of the movie—and it made me a bit angry. Seriously, Terrence, you couldn’t have found a talented, luminous, flame-haired, otherworldly actress who was, say, in her late 30s or early 40s? Amy Adams wasn’t available?

Maybe Brad Pitt could have had a reunion with his Thelma and Louise co-star, the raven-haired Geena Davis. At 55, Davis could have convincingly played the mother of a 19-year-old boy.

But convincing Hollywood that leading men can have leading ladies their own age? That seems to be out with the dinosaurs.

Kiri Blakeley writes about entertainment, pop culture, women, and Hollywood. Her book Can't Think Straight: A Memoir of Mixed-Up Love is on sale now. Follow her on Twitter.