Director: Terrence Malick
The Tree Of Life has been released in the same summer as Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and Green Lantern. To say these two blockbusters are diametrically opposed to The Tree Of Life does not go far enough. They are not in the same league; they are barely on the same planet. The Tree Of Life is what the doctor ordered for anyone suffering from blockbuster overload. Be warned, though; the dosage is strong and may cause relapse if you’re not prepared. Yeah, it’s deep.
Anyone who saw The Fountain might think Terrence Malick’s latest might be ripping off Darren Aronofsky’s flawed but fascinating mini-epic. Both films are concerned with the transcendence of time and man’s place in the world, and The Fountain centres on a quest for the elusive Tree of Life, as described in Genesis. Aronofsky ultimately found himself constrained by budgets and doubts, but The Tree Of Life feels unrestrained, unburdened by a need to pander to the masses. It features Brad Pitt and dinosaurs, but that’s as close to mainstream as The Tree Of Life gets. Starting from the origins of Earth, Malick travels through the primordial goop (that’s where the dinosaurs come in), eventually arriving at present day, where Jack (Sean Penn) is reflecting on his childhood in 1960s America, in particular his relationship with his parents (great performances by Pitt and Jessica Chastain). This story is the main concern of The Tree Of Life, as young Jack (brilliantly played by newcomer Hunter McCracken) deals not only with the trials of the pre-teen years, but also with the contradictions of an aggressive father and pacifist mother. An opening voiceover by Chastain maintains that a person can live life in one of two ways, “the way of nature and the way of grace”. The Tree Of Life is an argument for a balance between the two; nature can be cruel, but there is a gracious beauty to it that simply cannot be ignored. Is nature representative of God? Or of us? Or something else entirely? The tracing of the birth of the planet to today is not just to show off some (admittedly outstanding) special effects, but to provoke questions, some of which can only be answered in a relative way. The Tree Of Life is a film that will divide audiences, as it demands attention and patience. Despite this glowing review, if you can’t commit some brain matter to this one, just don’t bother.
Due in no small part to Emmanuel Lubezki’s achingly gorgeous cinematography, the film feels less like an entertainment and more like a work of art. CGI effects combine with smooth handheld camerawork to create a sumptuous visual feast; 6.5 billion years of history in the blink of an eye. Malick brings both his visual artistry and gift for character to his script, as one man’s life is meshed into the fabric of our world. Some will say it’s slow, self-indulgent, and straining too hard for meaning that may not be there. Others (this critic included) will recognise it as ambitious, daring and beautiful, to be filed next to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only way to know which camp you fall into is to see The Tree Of Life for yourself…