***originally written 13 July 2011***
The first 15 minutes of The Tree Of Life, Terrence Malick’s new Palme D’Or winning opus, may put you off, dealing as they do, quite frankly, with the intense grieving process that parents go through at the sudden death of a child. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain – the parents – give bitterly realistic portrayals of loss here, all seen through the prism of memory as Sean Penn recalls losing his sibling from the lofty heights of a cold skyscraper. It’s dour way to introduce a movie, giving the impression that the two hours to follow is going to be arduous work; the kind of wearisome movie that desperately clutches for critical appreciation, without a thought for actual viewer satisfaction. Thankfully, this proves to be something of a red herring, though in retrospect a necessary one. For without the shadow cast by the looming inevitability of death, the remainder of this movie would have felt very different.
In a move of controversial ambition, The Tree Of Life then takes a breathtaking leap backwards to the beginning of the universe. It all feels very grand, evoking (at times quite deliberately) the gravitas of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This extended section of awesome effects shots (designed by 2001’s own visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull no less) leads us right through to single-celled organisms and on, further still, to dinosaurs and natural cataclysms, before returning us, gracefully, to the film’s focal point; a family unit in 1950s American suburbia.
It’s something that really needs to be seen on a cinema screen, and I encourage anyone reading who has even something of a desire to see this movie to see it on as large a canvas as you can find. The effects here (largely eschewing computer graphics, dinosaurs aside) and the photography are astounding, every single frame is beautiful. If this sounds like ecstatic hyperbole, then too bad. This is a must-see visual experience. And with none of that bullshit 3D malarkey.
But why is it here? What is its purpose in The Tree Of Life, a film otherwise concerned with the minutiae of family life and the nostalgia of childhood? It dwarfs the tiny lives of these people so completely as to render their actions and feelings moot in the grand scheme of a universe that will continue regardless of them… or so you might assume. Strangely, the incomparable scale of these depictions actually lends astounding weight to the humdrum events of suburban life. They are one with the epic scope of the universe and not separate from. All things are one. Easy to call pretentious, but from another perspective also impressively ambitious. It is this largeness of focus and the philosophical questions that such a focus poses that elevates The Tree Of Life from the realms of earnest drama.
See the deftness of Malick’s direction once the film calms down to focus on the family, and largely on son Jack (fresh-face Hunter McCracken). In his impressive war epic The Thin Red Line, Malick occasionally drifted into formless documentary-style passages with great success. Here that method is fully in force, with what amounts to the most pristine home-movie collection you’ll ever see. Shot after shot after shot after shot of the most exquisitely framed pieces of a family now only held in memory. And as the conflicted, aggressive patriarch, Brad Pitt quietly gives easily his most impressive performance in well over a decade.
It is his tough-love relationship with Jack that glues the majority of the film together, as he attempts for better or worse to educate his son as best he can, at times sacrificing love for the hard lessons life requires. But this is not a one-note nasty-father tale either, as Pitt and Malick together build a character far more complex, and far sadder, mourning missed opportunities, and seeing the possibility for grace in his son. Whilst the film’s pace is always languid, tellingly the only time it really slows to an aimless crawl is when Pitt’s father figure leaves the equation for a business trip.
A sense of impending doom prevails thanks to that first quarter hour. One wonders, will the film reveal the specifics of the tragedy set to befall these struggling people, people struggling to be their best? The film’s final chapter, stepping back to present day, brings about a finale to rival 2001’s for ambiguity, as Sean Penn’s world-weary older iteration of Jack follows his younger self to an apparent afterlife; a place of reunion, reconciliation, and peace. It’s a dangerous, almost faltering step; attempting to visualise such a complex idea. Whether Malick succeeds or not will be up to you, should you make it that far.
Make no mistake; this is a film that asks of not just your attention, but your opinions and your feelings. It is an evocative and emotional journey demanding participation and empathy of the viewer. It’s not without flaws. The dislocated, drifting narration is utterly unnecessary, and a million miles from the kind of poetic touchstones that added depth to The Thin Red Line or Badlands. The lack of a strong narrative will frustrate many, and Malick labours a few of his points too heavily. Sean Penn is more or less wasted also, marginalised to a few scenes of looking brow-beaten and stumbling over rocks in expensive shoes.
However, justifying or criticising Malick’s choices this way or that seems strangely pointless in the end. The Tree Of Life simply exists. Ultimately his separate credits as writer and director feel wholly inaccurate. “Built by”, “Constructed by” or even “Pondered by” would be more appropriate. The Tree Of Life is an art piece. Leave your popcorn at the door.