Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Where the hell is The Tree of Life?

I don’t expect you to know the answer. But the question is not exactly rhetorical either. I genuinely want to know where the blasted thing has got to. If you are not in the  loop, The Tree of Life is …

Tue, Jul 27, 2010, 22:43


I don’t expect you to know the answer. But the question is not exactly rhetorical either. I genuinely want to know where the blasted thing has got to. If you are not in the  loop, The Tree of Life is — or is supposed to be — an epic film of some sort from the admirable Terrence Malick. The director has, of course, previous form in the art of non-delivery. In 1973, he directed an extraordinary, durable film entitled Badlands. Five years after that, he delivered the slightly less focussed, but equally compelling and even more gorgeous Days of Heaven.

“I think I see it. No, it’s just a regular sort of tree.”

Then a great deal of nothing. Rumours surrounding Mr Malick’s activities over the following 20 years became increasingly frenzied and ever more absurd. He was living as a monk in Luxembourg. He had become a pirate. He was the brains behind Mr Blobby. Eventually, he resurfaced with the star-studded Thin Red Line.

That 1998 war film was, to my mind, somewhat weighed down by its own pretensions. You remember. Shot of parrot. “I guess a man is just a little speck on God’s finger.” Shot of snake. “Seems there’s more evil in a river’s curve than in all the dead breath of murdered souls” Shot of crocodile. “Blah, blah, blah.” But it was very definitely an interesting sort of mess.

The New World was something else again. Featuring our own Colin Farrell as John Smith and a rather brilliant Christian Bale as John Rolfe, the picture was a purposefully strange, impressively cool take on the colonisation of America and, more specifically, the Pocohontas story. In the years since its release in 2005, its reputation has steadily grown among Malick watchers.

So, over a year ago, everybody was eagerly awaiting the premiere of The Tree of Life at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The plot was — and remains — a closely guarded secret. But we knew it starred Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Fiona Shaw. We knew it was some kind of period piece. And we knew it was a Malick film. It was like the arrival of a new Thomas Pynchon novel before that fine author went back to being (sort of) prolific.

The film didn’t turn up at Cannes. It didn’t turn up at Venice. It didn’t turn up at Toronto. It didn’t turn up at London. 2010 arrived and, once more, it didn’t turn up at Cannes. Now, over the last few days, we have received information about what’s playing in this year’s Toronto and this year’s Venice film festivals. Guess what’s not there.

Am I alone in beginning to suspect that Tree of Life is one big conceptual joke? Pitt, Malick, Penn and all the rest are, perhaps, playing a gag on the world’s expectant filmgoers. Hmm? Unlikely, I think. It’s not as if Sean Penn is known for his sense of humour. At any rate, if you know where Tree of Life has got to then drop us a line. Yeah, I know there are release dates on IMDb. There have, I assure you, been release dates there before.

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