The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Though actually completed about three years ago, now after many delays and distribution issues, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature finally arrives on our shores. Was it worth the wait? I’m still not entirely sure.

I’ll dispense with a plot summary, as I really don’t believe it’s necessary – this film is all about the music and the visuals. For this film Malick takes his template far beyond what he has set down thus far; yes there are still copious shots of grass and trees waving in the wind, there is still voiceover narration, there are still jaw-droppingly beautiful compositions; but this time he has added elements of science-fiction, fantasy, nature documentaries and Christian doctrine to the mix in much fuller fashion.

He elevates family life – in this case a 1950s Texan family with Brad Pitt as the Father and Jessica Chastain as the Mother – to a near mythical, quasi-religious status. The narrative flashes back and forth between the present day reflections of Jack (Sean Penn), one of the three boys in the O’ Brien family, and the urban idyll of his 1950s childhood, presided over by hard-ass Dad (Pitt) and loving, graceful Mother (Chastain).

There are many shots of Chastain wandering barefoot in the grass in her lovely 50s dresses, a beatific smile playing over her lovely features (everyone in this film is good-looking). We see her time and again framed by sunlit windows, behind lace curtains, holding, hugging, kissing and generally smothering her boys with love and affection.  She seems to represent the Grace that Malick pits against Nature in his opening sequence. He suggests that Grace “doesn’t need to please itself”, while Nature is violent, self-serving and selfish. As if to illustrate this, in one of the film’s key sequences, Malick visualizes the origin of life itself.  Raging lava-like liquids shift and move explosively giving rise to microbial life,which then become jellyfish-type creatures swimming in turbulent seas, eventually morphing into shark-like creatures, and eventually making it on to land as dinosaurs – yup, you read right, dinosaurs.  The special effects for this section of the film were designed by Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey; and it is Kubrick’s masterpiece that comes to mind most often when watching The Tree of Life.

This is a film that, I can imagine, will not only divide Malick’s supporters, but will also give fresh ammunition to his detractors. I loved his earlier 1970s films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, for many of the same features which he still utilises in The Tree of Life – the use of natural light, beautiful cinematography, breaking away from narrative to bask in the joy and beauty of the natural world. However, with the Tree of Life, there is a weaker narrative, and much heavier emphasis on Christian doctrine, philosophical rumination and on generally Asking The Big Questions. Also, Malick’s usual (more so since The Thin Red Line) use of voiceover is used more widely here, irritatingly so in my own opinion.

And actually, the voiceover script, for all it’s attempts at profundity and high-mindedness is really quite banal and child-like at times. Lines like “The only way to be happy is to love”, and “Help each other, love everyone” made me want to hurl my popcorn at the screen. For me, some of the best moments in the film are the scenes depicting the young boys playing and fooling around in gorgeous summer sunshine. Malick somehow seems to catch the essence of childhood here, as the kids spend long days running wild, looking for things to do, away from the adult world. One of the problems I had with the film is that there’s just too darn much of everything. Too many shots, too much voiceover, too long a running time and too much proselytising. Some scenes seemed shoe-horned in, and others didn’t seem to make any narrative or contextual sense.

But for all that, what I can admire is the scope and the reach of the film. The sheer scale, ambition and mastery of the medium on display is, I suspect, what garnered Malick the Best Picture Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He seems to be reaching for something beyond cinema; as if he is trying to capture on film the very essence of what it is to be alive – living, loving, being loved. For that, you have to admire him, perhaps.

There is no doubt that it is a film that will provoke heated debate; is it a profound, moving masterpiece; banality dressed up as profundity, or just a load of old cobblers? Who knows? Possibly none of the above. What is certain is that not many films being made today are as maddening, intriguing, frustrating and downright ravishing as this. For that I guess we should be thankful. Shouldn’t we?

The Tree of Life is currently showing at Cineworld and The Irish Film Institute.

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