Whatever your reaction to the new film from auteur director Terence Malick there can be no denying that The Tree of Life is an extraordinary film. Despite winning the prestigious Palme D’or at Cannes the film was roundly booed by critics who baulked at its earnest, self-reverential and impressionistic style. With Empire and Total Film both gracing the picture with five star reviews and reports of ordinary cinemagoers filling theatres with derisive laughter I approached the cinema with my mind as wide open as I could stretch it, prepared for a unique and divisive cinematic experience. I was right to do so.
If you plan on seeing this film you may have to broaden your expectation of what a film should be since The Tree of Life is not structured around a mainstream narrative. It is not a popcorn movie, not a casual diversion for a Friday night and not a film for the cynical. Instead it is a philosophical meditation on life, love, family, beauty and wonder, a work of dreamy art full of astonishing imagery, breath-taking cinematography and glorious music.
It’s a very abstract film but there is a story to invest yourself in. Sean Penn plays a troubled architect pondering the significance of a single life in a vast universe on the anniversary of his brother’s death but most of the narrative takes place in his childhood in a Texas suburb and chronicles various episodes in the life of a family headed by Brad Pitt’s exacting father. There isn’t a plot as such rather a succession of beautifully filmed and acted moments in the lives of three boys. It’s like peering through a window at an uncommonly authentic mid-twentieth century America, totally natural and achingly beautiful.
The main recurring theme in this story is young Jack’s tense relationship with his hugely strict father balanced against the film’s general reverence for the boys’ angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). Pitt’s character is fascinating, delivering sharp retribution if any of sons so much as calls him ‘dad’ instead of ‘father’ or ‘sir’ and yet teaches them how to fight and that to get ahead in the world they shouldn’t be too nice. He and Chastain form a clear and purposeful juxtaposition, they are order and chaos, nature and grace and their individual impact on their sons is plain and touching. The joy the boys share with their mother when Pitt is away on business is particularly moving.
Moreover the picture depicts a fascinating and insightful view of American boyhood. Jack and his brothers spend their days running around their neighbourhood exploring local woodland breaking windows and launching frogs with fireworks but they go through all the necessary and painful points of growing up, Jack furtively spies a pretty girl in class, a school friend drowns in an open-air swimming pool. Every scene is handled totally naturalistically and the young actors are all superb (one even looks startlingly like Brad Pitt). I was strongly reminded at times of Stand By Me.
For everything the film does brilliantly the plot is somewhat inconsequential. We never learn how poor R.L dies and little of what we see contributes to any sort of conclusion but that’s not the point. This is more about questions than answers, filled with whispered voiceovers directed to a higher force. Some have claimed this is a preachy film and it certainly celebrates the beauty of creation but the film acknowledges the darker side of Christianity through Pitt’s dogmatic teaching. The film asks questions of God but indulges in an ocean-side image of Heaven.
The film reaches its most abstract and arguably beautiful sequence about twenty minutes in with a long succession of images charting the history of life including astonishing sights of the universe, erupting volcanoes, marine life and, strangely, dinosaurs, all set to an uplifting operatic score. This sequence, more than any, prompted a lot of incredulous laughter from those unimpressed by the incredible cinematography on whom the point of the sequence seemed to be lost. It was possibly the picture’s most unforgettable moment (admittedly it’s a stretch to call it that, it lasted at least half an hour), but might not do it any favours. Many people left the cinema while I sat enraptured by its beauty.
It’s fair to say that for the regular filmgoer to enjoy The Tree of Life they will need to approach it without cynicism. It is a hugely self-involved film and many will hate it for that. The incredible cinematography, brilliant acting and magnificent score cannot be refuted and while it’s a very slow film devoid of explosive moments (except perhaps one dinner table scene) there’s always something fascinating to watch. Every time the film reaches a lull it changes direction and offers something new. Fans of Sean Penn might be disappointed with how little he has to do in his few and far between scenes and the bit with the dinosaurs feels out of place but there is absolutely nothing else like this, incredibly beautiful, a film that reminds us just how incredible the world we live in really is. If you’re the kind of person whose taste in film favours something more along the lines of Transformers 3 stay away but if you have broader horizons buy a ticket, keep your mind open and prepare to have it blown.
A singularly artistic and ethereal dream of a film featuring peerless cinematography and absorbingly nuanced performances from all involved. Completely un-commercial and already proven to divide opinion but unquestionably overflowing with beauty and philosophy with an incomparable soundtrack. There is absolutely nothing like The Tree of Life.