The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)


Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack). Screenplay by Terrence Malick. Directed by Terrence Malick. Rating: 12. Running time: 139 minutes.

I must confess: I had planned on not writing this review. I saw The Tree of Life two days ago and left the cinema electrocuted, carrying away an array of contradictory reactions, thinking I had finally discovered the unreviewable film. I still think that is probably the case, but I’ve decided to try to say something worthwhile anyway. The reason? With every passing hour, this out of this world, visionary piece of cinema is growing and growing on me. It touches a nerve, and it would be a sin not to try to share it.

A second confession: I very nearly walked out. About half an hour into the film, by which stage it has already done its best to liberate us from convention through a minimal use of dialogue, countless shots of nature, and the introduction of an unexplained but pivotal event, it takes an even more daring turn. What follows is what must have been at least 20 minutes of prehistoric visuals. That is, Malick dishes out carefully crafted footage taking us from the Big Bang to dinosaurs. It plays out like a very special and serene episode of Planet Earth in slow motion, filmed by a true artist, and with the help of a masterful touch of music it becomes the most oddly moving of experiences. It’s the vision of Kubrick’s 2001 with the beauty barometer at bursting point.

Yet I nevertheless nearly left at this point, because at the time, when the sequence begins, it’s like you’ve been dropped into a Black Hole, completely lost and spinning in this void of seemingly random sounds and images, however stunning they are. And having experimented with Palme d’Or pretentiousness last year with the utterly stupid Uncle Boonmee, it was a significant struggle to let myself be taken in. I didn’t know if I could hack another 2 hours of indecipherable art house claptrap, which is exactly the scent The Tree of Life seemed to be giving off.

To get out of this attitude, and to see the film properly (and if you can do this in advance rather than during your first viewing, as I had to, you’ll be the better for it), the best preparation available is to watch that extremely intriguing trailer a few times, and to realise just how representative of the film it turns out to be. This is no ordinary storytelling. It’s more like a sprawling, effortlessly smooth and calm series of scenes, and you can only appreciate the greatness of it once you understand this is how the whole film is going to be, and when you accept it isn’t going to live up to the term ‘film’ in any sense. The style of the project is so indescribably unique and eventually moving that it creates a new category of art. For this to be shown in rooms next door to the likes of Bridesmaids up and down the country is hilariously absurd.

The film’s metaphysics, and subsequent imagery, is deeply Christian, deeply pantheist. The early sequence I mentioned may be loaded with acceptance of science, but the startlingly normal family we end up focusing on for the rest of the film makes clear Malick’s religious roots, paving the way for a finale as spiritual and aesthetically profound as I can recall. Sean Penn barely says a word in his fifteen minutes of screen time, and it speaks volumes that this most established of actors is willing to play such a minor role in Malick’s masterpiece. He just walks around wearing that characteristically deep-looking expression, complimenting, and often constituting, the stunning visuals.

I need to see this again, and probably a few more times after that too. You need to see it for the first time, and then join me in multiple repeat screenings. For to try to evaluate the extent of this film’s genius after one viewing would be hugely disrespectful to its ambitions. It really is, quite simply, something else.

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