It’s amazing to think that Terrence Malick has only made 5 films in forty years. As enigmatic and singular as any director in the history of cinema, Malick’s movies are the subject of many an erudite discussion, and whether they’re being hailed as genre yardsticks or slated as egotistical dross, they always provoke genuine, and often visceral, reactions in those who watch them.
Malick’s first film since 2005’s The New World has similarly confounded and polarised audiences. The Tree of Life is a film whose title is not hyperbole; a study of human history, morality, innocence and the concept of God, it’s an extraordinarily challenging and unapologetically complex film, a reflection on universal, yet intangible themes. Imbued with a mysticism all its own, The Tree of Life is by turns a study, a reflection, a contemplation and an exploration.
If this all sounds a bit wordy, well, it’s hard to describe Malick’s film in any other terms.
Although loosely structured around a central narrative – a fifty-something man reflects on his 1950s childhood from the present day as he tries to reconcile his relationship with his authoritarian father on the anniversary of his brother’s premature death – its scope is such that it really doesn’t play like a traditional movie at all.
Jack O’Brien (played as a child by Hunter McCracken, as an adult by Sean Penn) is our protagonist, raised by unnamed parents Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in an idyllic Texas suburb eternally bathed in copper sunlight, yet his story is played out against the backdrop of the whole of existence: there is no linear structure whatsoever. We dance between assorted memories and moments from Jack’s childhood, the beginnings of life on earth, the present day and the astral plane, never being directed toward any particular story. Accompanied only by sparse dialogue, (and somewhat distracting, increasingly irritating repeated breathy voiceovers from the main characters) Malick attempts to paint his cinematic canvas with images and ideas instead of words, charting the course of human experience to this point through the vessel of a single child’s growth from birth to middle-age.
Chastain’s character tells us “there are two ways in life: the way of nature and the way of grace,” and the film’s purpose is both to determine what those choices mean and if there is anything out there beyond the human sphere, guiding our hand toward one or the other.
A magnetic sequence in the film’s opening third goes back to the very beginnings of life on earth; as Malick’s camera rushes through eons of existence to a glorious choral soundtrack, we’re invited to interpret impressionistic images of magma or bacteria or astrophysical movement. Although there’s a superfluous, vaguely preposterous sequence involving dinosaurs, the beauty of the images Malick creates is undeniable, the marriage of video and audio stirring feelings from the depths of the psyche as we attempt to unpack what we’re seeing.
The best way to describe The Tree of Life is that it’s like watching a visual epic poem; Malick’s beliefs and marvellously intricate ideas spill out of the screen like ink from Walt Whitman’s quill. As with poetry, we cannot hope to comprehend every concept thrown at us, and there are hundreds of them, nor will we likely ever understand Malick’s true message. What this film does so magnificently, however, is communicate on both a universal and personal level simultaneously, by crafting beautiful images and moments which we all recognise – a rushing waterfall, parents celebrating a birth, children’s gleeful screams echoing down empty suburban streets on a summer evening – but which are guaranteed to draw out different reactions from everyone.
To try and analyse The Tree of Life as you would another film is ultimately churlish, as it bears hardly any marks of traditional filmmaking. Yet some of these elements are also very worthy of praise.
The acting, for one, is terrific, especially from a revelatory Chastain and a stunningly conflicted, haunted Brad Pitt. They manage to be a very believable couple whose personalities could hardly be more disparate, but whose love for each other in the film’s early stages is as palpable as the frostiness which permeates its second act. Pitt, often overlooked as a gifted actor, is able to do wonders with precious little screentime or dialogue, his deep-set features evoking powerful emotions and his demeanour creating a fully fleshed-out character whose inner rage and disappointment in himself is at times heartbreaking, at times hateful. Chastain’s angelic mother figure is similarly superb, able to elicit the best in her husband and children, while also being constantly unsettled by Jack’s increasingly violent, rebellious tendencies, themselves mirrored by Pitt’s father figure’s waning tolerance for Jack’s behaviour, which often manifests itself in physically confrontational moments of aggression. Hunter McCracken, playing the young Jack, also more than stands up for himself in these sequences, mixing just the right amount of impetuousness into his anarchic, meaningless attacks on his parents; indeed, it’s these moments of extreme emotion which help provoke the icy relationship of his parents in the film’s middle third. Sean Penn very seldom appears, but his weary expressions are perfect for the elder Jack, able to convey deep regrets through tiny movements and gestures; his subtle performance is perfectly suited to Malick’s vision of this spectral life.
There will be legions of people queuing up to sling mud at Terrence Malick’s new film. They’ll dub it egotistical, pretentious, even risible. Yet to do so is both over-simplify and wilfully ignore the motivation and meaning behind this film. There are sections which don’t work, certainly, and there are moments where Malick’s personal philosophy threatens to run amok, but such blips rarely tarnish what is on the whole a wonderful piece of art.
Investigating perhaps the most complex, unanswerable and frightening question we can ask ourselves – why are we here? – with an alchemical combination of glorious music (both from existing classical pieces and Alexandre Desplat’s hypnotically resplendent score) and stunningly poignant images, Malick explores a subject which fascinates him, and all of us, without ever compromising his vision or spelling out his messages. This is the work of a true auteur, a word seldom correctly applied these days, and someone who clearly sees that there’s more to the medium of cinema than fighting robots and exploitative gore. And long may he continue to do so.
Verdict: a film probably more guaranteed to polarise people than any other, Malick’s sixth feature is an epic, challenging and thought-provoking piece of brilliance. Creating wondrous images, casting doubt on our innermost beliefs and craving answers to the unanswerable questions of life, The Tree of Life handles subject matter most would shun. The results are spellbinding.