Sunday, 17 July 2011

Review: The Tree of Life

As his fifth film in a forty year career (Badlands; Days of Heaven; The Thin Red Line; The New World), Terence Malick once again causes a stir throughout the film community with the release of the Tree of Life. The film was booed and mocked from its initial Cannes screening, yet went on to win the coveted Palme d'Or, an ambiguity frequently seen at the French film festival (let's not even mention Von Trier). 
Malick's twenty year hiatus during his career saw him  gestating over his most ambitious project, elusively named Q, and was supposed to be a love-letter or poem to life, the cosmos, the creation, the beauty of the World. He and his techie cronies went about capturing some truly stunning scenery from all the corners of Earth (it is said that Malick had forty page descriptions of his poetic visions he wanted to shoot), and combined with some momentous footage of space and the stars, they were left with a patchwork of beauty befitting of a BBC nature doc. Plans for Q were abandoned or put on hold, and The Thin Red Line and The New World were made - the last of Malick's structured filmmaking. Instead the random imagery for Q was integrated into a basic premise about a family living in 1950s Texas, and Malick begat his most ambitious project yet, but sadly, also his most boring.
Tree of Life starts with the mother (Jessica Chastain) receiving a letter to say their nineteen-year old son has died meanwhile we cut to present-day and see Sean Penn as Jack (the eldest of Chastain's and Pitt's three sons), an architect working in the urban skyline of of Huston's skyscrapers, as he ponders on his childhood memories of growing up wih his brothers and parents in suburban America. The entire film hinges on two walks through life - that of grace, or that of nature. Chastain as the elegant and pure form of grace, and Pitt as the Darwinian and authoratative nature, are both compelling with such little script (or close to none in Chastain's case) for here are two actors who can beautifully render an emotion through expression alone.
I would divulge more plot or expose further discussion from the storyline, but there really isn't any. The structure of a traditional movie (even if non-linear or chronologically messy) is completely thrown out of the window here, as we instead see moments of drama - parents arguing, boys playfighting, the tragedy of a fire - interwoven with embryos splitting, stars in supernova, molten lava cooling in water, the sun's rays dripping through woodlands and a plethora of stars and planets. Malick does not want to depict a story as such, but instead dowse the viewer in pure imagery - of grace and nature.
Unfortunately, the 150-minute running time does take its toll, and the six departures in the screening I saw does demonstrate how this film is most defintely not for everyone. Having Pitt and Penn attached to the project was certain to get it a more widespread cinema release (rather than just the Curzons), and rightly so, but I won't pretend that I sat there enthused or enjoying what I was seeing. It seems to be more a massage of the senses - beautiful music and stunning pictures - but I did question if this is what many people want in a cinematic release. Tree of Life is undoubtedly an arthouse feature (to pop it in a box), and I think rather than (on the whole) disliking this film in particular, I dislike the entire arthouse genre - pretentious, boring and sanctimonious as it is. Malick is undoubtedly a great director, and all his previous efforts are good films, although seriously enhanced and improved by their gorgeous imagery and backdrops rather than the script or actual content of the film. After what seems like an age, the film looks like it's drwaing to a close (at just shy of two hours), and at this point I was ready to leave, but instead Malick ended his piece with a laughingly ridiculous depiction of the afterlife, the end of the world, the unity of grace and nature, as we see the film's cast gathering in joy on desolate beaches. What could have been a fairly rounded off ending, with the fifties Texan family plot coming to a close, he instead went on to a preachy finale, his unsavoury pouring of existentialism, and at this point, the man two rows in front of me had had enough, and made a sharp exit from the film.
Malick's latest can not be criticised for lack of ambition or beauty, but although the Tree of Life has garnered the adoration and respect of film-critics and buffs alike, it stinks of self-indulgement and pretentiousness. The media enveloping it has created such a positive buzz that one enters the cinema wantung to love it, wanting for it to be their off-kilter favourite (rendering them a film-connoisseur) but for me, it was a nice little story amidst some beautiful and stunning scenery; a far-cry from what I look for in a feature film. Nothing more, nothing less.


  1. I think this is a film that greatly benefits from a second viewing. When you know what to anticipate your free to see the bones of the film and how it is structured. I also think it's important to understand that the film occurs within the mind of Sean Penn's character, and it is a reflection and interpretation of his memories. The early scenes (especially the Doug Trumbull footage), then are given weight as we see his character try and understand the value of time and how context can affect these things. I also don't think the final scene is an afterlife, but instead a collection of the important figures and events of his life in one place. Not an ideal ending I agree, but an necessary conclusion (if poorly realised).
    This is a great review, even though I don't agree with you. I think you are right in saying he works better with narrative structure. The Thin Red Line explores a lot of these ideas in a much better way. Still 5 stars from me.