sat 20/07/2024

The Tree of Life | reviews, news & interviews

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s elliptical epic leads us through time, space and one family’s story

'Just one piece of the puzzle': Brad Pitt in 'The Tree of Life'

At the end of last week it was reported that a Connecticut cinema, besieged with requests for refunds, had posted up a sign warning punters that The Tree of Life “does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling”. And so what? Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner is certainly elliptical and impressionistic, but it’s also spellbinding, and as lofty and luminous as the stars in the sky.

Above all, it’s a film which is buoyed – and which sometimes threatens to be sunk - by its own formidable ambition.

The Tree of Life is only Malick’s fifth feature in a career spanning 38 years, and it feels like the culmination of a life’s work. All his familiar themes are present - disaffection, thrall to nature, spirituality, the looming spectre of death – and they are presented in their most grandiose (and, yes, least conventionally cohesive) manner yet. Despite its thematic similarities to his other work, the scale of Malick’s vision means it feels a world away from his playful, pared-down (but quite brilliant) debut Badlands (1973).

The story follows a Texan family from the Fifties all the way through to the present day and, in particular, focuses on the eldest of three boys, Jack O’Brien - played by Sean Penn as an adult (pictured below right), and Hunter McCracken as a child. Within moments of the film’s opening the family are dealt a cruel blow: one of the sons is dead. We see parental grief captured in fleeting, dancing images and snatches of dialogue (“I just want to die - be with him”). A missive delivers the devastating news to Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain, pictured below left) who, in turn, telephones her husband (an unusually buttoned-up Brad Pitt).

From leafy mid-20th-century suburbia the film hurtles into the future and to the blinding white metropolis of Houston, where we meet the fully grown Jack. Despite his apparent success he is wracked with melancholia, at odds with his environment and beset by memories of his childhood and brother’s death. Jack’s perspective is one of extremes; he does as many do, seeing the world both from the top down, sitting in judgment on his fellow man, and from the bottom up, looking searchingly to the heavens for answers. He is simultaneously important and utterly insignificant.

tree-of-life-movie-image-sean-penn-01Then, in a gobsmacking digression, Malick chooses to interrupt the family’s story with a sequence depicting the birth of the universe, not unlike Kubrick’s evolutionary opener in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In collaboration with 2001’s pioneering special effects guru Douglas Trumbull, Malick presents us with the majesty and ferocity of creation (and even dinosaurs). He makes this an integral part of Jack’s story, as it is – one may infer - an integral part of all of ours. As Sissy Spacek remarks in Badlands, we are each of us “playing our part in a larger story”.

When we return to the family it’s to happier times, with Jack’s birth and blissful early years, before the film settles on a significant, more tumultuous period in his life - the onset of puberty and its associated revelations. He finds himself consumed with both destructive and procreational impulses, echoing the violent cosmic creation that has gone before. He begins to notice life’s cruelties and the unhappiness that surrounds him, particularly the fallibility and dissatisfaction of his father and the mounting misery of his angelic mother.

jessica-chastain-tree-of-lifeThere is of course much, much more to this film, not least the otherworldliness of that highly debatable ending. The Tree of Life is breathtaking in its vision, richness and technique and has a waltzing fluidity which belies its unconventional narrative structure. It’s also the most undisguised manifestation of Malick’s God complex we’ve seen. His body of work frequently features individuals at their most emotionally heightened or fragile, yet their stories are presented to us by a detached, elevated, almost ethereal observer. He brings you close enough for characters to captivate but, more often than not, they remain stubbornly unknowable. In this case, although both Pitt and Chastain acquit themselves impressively (there’s no Richard Gere in Days of Heaven-style blankness), ultimately their symbolic worth - as the forces of nature and grace respectively - outweighs their importance as characters.

The Tree of Life is certainly a film to admire, revisit and puzzle over, though whether it’s one to cherish will be down to the individual. It’s a strange and beautiful beast, both in love with the wonder of science and overtly, almost alienatingly religious. At 139 minutes it’s nearly 20 minutes shorter than the latest instalment in the Transformers franchise and an immeasurably better use of your time. Characteristically poetic, for sheer spectacle and brazen audacity it rivals anything made in the last decade. Whereas James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) gave us a new world to goggle (and baulk) at, Malick is still very much in love with the potential of this one.



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In a gobsmacking digression, Malick chooses to interrupt the family’s story with a sequence depicting the birth of the universe

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The most boring film ever made,like being tied to a chair and forced to watch someone's awful home movies and to what end...oh yes parents aren't perfect . Well thats a revelation. And the dinosaurs.. why?. Get in line for refunds?

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