The Tree of Life (2011)

Though there has no doubt already been a wealth of ‘experimental’ installations in art galleries all over the world, as far as narrative works go, Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life might be the most unique film you’ll have a chance to see in a cinema this year. Part childhood memoir, part origins-of-the-planet summary, the film, as a cinema-going experience, is guaranteed to stir some emotion in you. That is not to say, however, it is a particularly great film. And indeed, though it is too cinematic for a gallery exhibition, its divisiveness seems peculiarly in line with that of much of contemporary art: one person’s art is another’s wank.

For whatever reason (relatively little output? the sense of an ‘event’ upon each release? the singular and influential style? the fact he seems to get films made whenever and with whomever he wants?), Malick’s name seems to be enough at the moment to frighten critics into submission. The wave and nature of rave reviews piled onto The Tree of Life was already nauseating before its wide theatrical release today.

To me, with this latest film, too many critics have mistaken a decidedly confused spiritualism for genuine profundity – even more so, they have mistaken a half-baked, disposable self-indulgence for artistic ambition. Indeed, the unequivocal five-star reviews lauded on the film appear as clich├ęd in their unquestioning acceptance as the well-worn notion of Malick as a “reclusive director”. (Regardless of Malick’s behaviour with a largely parasitic media, anyone with any ounce of how directing a film works would have to concede reclusion is a debilitating asset that seems antithetical to directing an entire film set.)

Film-goers familiar with Malick’s preceding four features will recognise an established sensibility early on here. The film opens with a mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) learning of the death of one of their three sons, and the resulting sequence is a montage of bereavement that is poignant in tone and imagery. Favouring disparate fragments over successive chronology, Malick sets an elusive tone for the rest of his 2-hour 20-minute film by cutting together fleeting images to a classical score with convincing sweep.

Forget the opening quote from Job and the curious and rather simplistic dichotomy presented between an all-accepting ‘grace’ and a self-serving ‘nature’, and the film’s editorial rhythm is immediately immersive, even if its more idyllic images tend to jar (deliberately, perhaps) with the more naturalistic setting of 1950s Waco, Texas.

Juxtaposed against the period setting and the idealised, impossibly pure vistas are images of Sean Penn in a contemporary cityscape; Malick (served by no less than five editors) cuts between these timelines so that we may deduce that Penn’s character is the adult version of Brad Pitt’s eldest son Jack O’Brien. Though he says very little in the film, Penn’s brooding self-seriousness makes his segments laughably “artsy”, and Malick contrasts the warm, “magic hour” nostalgia of the 1950s imagery with an unforgivably cool modern world. Indeed, if his previous films are linked in some way by a recurring exploration of some figurative, irrevocable fall from Eden, Malick has by now afforded himself his own shorthand for such seeming lament.

The Tree of Life blends more grounded settings...

... with imagery less real and more idealistic.

If the opening segment is tonally strong, it seems deliberately uneven and unwilling to settle into a traditional, more tangible narrative. Any hopes of this are dashed by a lengthy sequence in which we see the gaseous origins of the earth unfold in a dazzling spectacle of fluid colour; as the images become more discernibly earthly, we see the birth of planetary life and hyper-real digitalised dinosaurs and the meteor that wiped them out and brief invocations of subsequent epochs. Whatever of this sequence’s puffed-up incongruence, it is nevertheless strangely beautiful, and will test the patience of more restless viewers less prepared for the unexpectedly wonderful.

Its inclusion, however, goes unexplained, and narratively it makes the work seem strained and bloated as a whole, given that the more personalised (or less elusive) memoirs of the film are quite simplistic and without the kind of grandiosity that is otherwise drawing parallels to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Punctuating the otherwise wordless sequence – as indeed they do throughout the film – are characters’ whispered voice-overs that address some unseen, higher being and pose perplexed and perplexing questions to it (or us the viewers). Some may find these poignant or beautiful or – gasp! – “poetic”, but they could just as legitimately be described as aimless, distracting and – yes! – pretentious.

With each film, Malick’s voice-overs have become less and less character-specific and more and more like some idealised version of his own confused introspection, floating around ready to be voiced by whichever “character” speaks it. Compare the way Sissy Spacek’s grounded but wistful narration contradicted what the images told us in Badlands (1973), for instance, to the ways in which Penn, Pitt and Chastain speak in this film, and you might get a good sense of how lofty and removed Malick’s artistic preoccupations have become, not to mention the growing narcissism that possibly precludes such a shift.

The Tree of Life’s most impressive achievement is the impressions it evokes of a collective childhood shared by three brothers, as seen through the eyes of one in particular. As young Jack, R.L. and Steve respectively, newcomers Hunter McCracken (uncannily like older version Penn), Laramie Eppler (who could easily be Pitt’s real son) and Tye Sheridan share a touching and genuine chemistry that provides the film its emotional backbone even if its own plot and editorial style prevents a dramatic charge.

Alongside this is the subtle yet clear development of Jack, who, as the eldest O’Brien brother, feels an increasingly burdensome responsibility expected of him and, in turn, a hostility growing towards his embittered and embittering father, loving and well-intending though he is. McCracken, filmed with the same woozy close-ups as is Sean Penn, brings to his role a certain gravitas that hints towards a genuine coming-of-age.

The Tree of Life doesn’t particularly study its relationships or account for them, but does with great eloquence achieve a haunting, fleeting sense of nostalgia. Even when a great deal of individual images are apparently deemed disposable – whose very brevity gives them their power, perhaps – as an interwoven tapestry that holds the viewer even when its meaning is mysterious (such as when Jack intrudes upon the empty neighbours’ house and steals the mother’s nightgown), the film is a viscerally moving work.

Taken from context, even the film’s embarrassing coda is beautiful to look at. Its chief strength, then, is Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. Lubezki, who worked on The New World as well as the visually remarkable Children of Men, and who has also shot Malick’s next (untitled) film, captures a range of locales with an immediate and arresting urgency that helps alleviate the film’s weaknesses. But whether cinematography disguises this film's weaknesses completely depends on the extent of one’s allergy to navel-gazing self-indulgence, and whether or not beautiful and irritating are mutually exclusive.