Legendary and reclusive director Terrence Malick doesn’t get around to making films often. In fact, The Tree of Life is only his fifth in 38 years. His intense need for privacy and long absences between films have elevated Malick to near mythical status among cinephiles and critics who practically fall all over themselves to praise his work. So when Malick decides to release a new film, it’s certainly an event.
The Tree of Life is a departure for Malick, to say the least. This is his attempt at a metaphysical epic, and while it’s often stunning, the result is a largely baffling experience. It’s also a challenging film to review, as there is no discernible narrative. The first half hour attempts to show us the span of lives, from bacteria to CGI dinosaurs. The visuals are breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s a frustrating watch and if it weren’t for the occasional narration you would almost think you had happened upon some kind of bizarre nature documentary. Eventually, the film settles on a small town in 1950’s Texas and we are properly introduced to the O’Brien family. We know from flashes at the beginning of the film that they will lose a son. We experience the ups and downs of this family through the eyes of Jack (Hunter McCracken), their eldest son.
I was riveted by the often testy relationship Jack has with his father (Brad Pitt). Pitt is sensational here as the strict, demanding and yet affectionate and sympathetic father who desperately wants his sons to grow up to be more successful than he is, and rising actress Jessica Chastain is equally impressive as the loving mother. This family’s story is the heart of the film and the only part that really worked for me. Every now and then the story flashes forward to Jack as a grown up, played by Sean Penn. He appears to be some sort of professional (architect?) who is struggling with an existential crisis, likely related to the loss of his younger brother (which we never see). Penn is given practically no lines and his inclusion feels unnecessary and possibly cynically motivated (to tack another film star on the poster?).
The film is very loosely threaded together with narration from O’Brien family members which can be interesting but are often meandering and dull. I won’t ruin the climax of the film (if you can call it that), but let’s just say its spiritual overtones may appeal to some of the more open-minded Christians out there. For the record, I’m a fan of Terrence Malick’s work and have no problem with slow-paced cinema. I was somewhat disappointed by The New World, but I regard Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line as masterpieces. I commend Malick’s ambition and Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, but I don’t think the family story and the metaphysical musings work well together here. Malick is a gifted and unique filmmaker and there is much to admire within The Tree of Life, but he has not achieved his 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris and this beautiful-yet-frustrating film is hardly worthy of Cannes’ Palme d’Or award in my opinion.
The Tree of Life screens again on Tuesday 19 July at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Watch the trailer below.