The Tree of Life

Gorgeous, ponderous, pretentious – Terrence Malick’s long-awaited tone poem is a unique cinematic experience, writes DONALD CLARKE…

Gorgeous, ponderous, pretentious – Terrence Malick's long-awaited tone poem is a unique cinematic experience, writes DONALD CLARKE

FEW FILMS have been quite so anticipated as the latest release from Terrence Malick. Delayed more often than the second coming, The Tree of Lifehas, even before its release, taken on the quality of a lost relic.

The reclusive director of Badlandsand Days of Heavenalready had a significant following. His singular blend of airy mysticism and visual grace attracts those people who enjoy it when their films come across like poems. Factor in the presence of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and (no, really) the birth of the universe, and you are left with a very enticing project indeed.

So what's the blasted thing like? Well, the first point to make is that it looks and feels very, very like a Terrence Malick film. As was the case with his last two pictures ( The Thin Red Lineand The New World) jaw-droppingly beautiful images of the natural world are played beneath plangent voices intoning philosophical musings. Classical music swells. Famous faces furrow. Any vaguely cineliterate viewer, if put before a randomly chosen 30-second insert, would be able to identify the director.


Malick is, however, offering us hitherto unimaginable scales of natural majesty. The core of the film is a rambling family drama set in and around suburban Texas during the 1950s. Solid Brad Pitt plays an angry father. Before being replaced by Sean Penn, the excellent Hunter McCracken essays Jack, the son with whom dad can't quite connect. Jessica Chastain is absurdly luminous and saintly as the ever-forgiving mater familias.

Before we focus on that tale, Malick finds time to explore a little bit of backstory. Excuse our facetiousness. In fact, the director sets out to illustrate the origins of matter, life, the universe and everything. In a truly stunning sequence that bares comparison with 2001: A Space Odysseyat its most epic, Malick takes us from the clustering of stellar nebulae to the birth of our planet to the emergence of single-celled animals and on to the demise of the unfortunate dinosaurs. Scored to gorgeous romantic themes, the episode has a dreamy, druggy seductiveness that just about distracts from the nagging sense of empty splendour.

Then, jarringly, we are plunged back to that suburban front garden. A flash-forward has already told us that one of Pitt’s three sons will die young. The main body of the film finds the family bickering and bonding while mortality lurks over the gorgeously twilit horizon.

One can see what Malick is up to here. Transposing the cosmic with the personal allows him to ponder how the biggest ideas impinge on even the most mundane circumstances. The effect, however, is to make his central narrative seem even more hackneyed and familiar.

American film-makers (not to mention poets, novelists and playwrights) seem inordinately obsessed with aggressive fathers, and The Tree of Lifehas little to add to that endless discussion. Moreover, the solemnly intoned conversations with God focus on the most banal (if huge) questions. Why are we here? If the Lord is good, then why do bad things happen? Where do we go when we die?

And yet. The sheer audacity of the project definitely gets under your skin. The framing sequences featuring a morose Penn do lean towards an unhealthy school of late 1960s cod psychedelic profundity. (Is he really standing next to a disconnected doorway in a yawning existential desert?) But Emanuel Lubezki’s hazy photography and Malick’s sleepy compositions have a knack of bypassing the cynicism glands and getting right to that part of the brain that savours meaningless beauty.

For all its grand gestures, The Tree of Lifeis not about very much. No, that's not quite right. By attempting to be about everything, it fails to examine even the smallest philosophical quandary in any significant depth. But the effort is certainly something to behold.