Tree of Life is a sensational 90 minute movie wrapped up, to my mind, in a highly flawed 150 minute art installation.
It’s the film Malick clearly wants to become his legacy and I so wish he’d really pulled it off. Apparently the critics at Cannes were booing and laughing at its finale and to a point I can understand why. I’ll bet they were enraptured through the middle section.
Malick’s idea is to create a movie about a man in his 50’s looking back on the inconsequence (but to him monumental importance) of his tiny, but in many ways typical, life set against the greatness of the universe, its creation and God’s role in all this.
So we open with an hour or so of Kubrick’s classic 2001; a space Odyssey mashed up with the Best of David Attenburgh and a tiny little bit of Jurassic Park thrown in. It’s about the birth of the universe and the creation of man.
For some this has been the most stunning (and it is stunning visually) opening to a film ever made. To others it’s pretentious twaddle. I have to say I fell into the latter camp. It’s way too long and self indulgent. Malick describes it as a companion piece to the main movie. If you’ve read the Life of Pi it’s structurally very reminiscent of the first 100 pages which is essentially an essay on the role of religion in life today before the boy and the Tiger set to sea in an unbelievably good yarn.
Incidentally, the Tree of Life ends with a coda recalling the opening hour. Mercifully shorter; it doesn’t grate as much.
And so, we have a movie embedded in and drawn from, thematically at least, this “meaning of life” wrapper.
And it’s quite, quite beautiful; it very roughly follows the lives of a family in 1950’s Texas. Middle class I suppose and pretty much the typical Western family. Dad’s frustrated because he is not an overachiever and at times this has consequences. But really it’s not that important because it’s not a story as such.
The man in his 50’s who we meet in the “creation sequence”, Sean Penn, is reminiscing on this time, at first dewy eyed but later more critically as he follows his childhood and adolescance that culminates in the death of one of his brothers (not a spoiler as it is revealed in the first frames).
This is Malick’s genius because in this he essentially wraps a universal childhood into 90 minutes of relatively sequential vignettes that absolutely draw the breath at times. As a baby plays with bubbles, as a group of kids are ecstatically sprayed (innocently ) with a cloud of DDT from a passing lorry, as brothers bicker, as Mum and dad stroke their childrens’ hair and read them bedtime stories.
And then the plot, I say plot but that’s a very loose term because this is not a plotted narrative, develops as we see that the father is actually a pretty heavy handed patriarch. This section reveals the excellence of Brad Pitt who plays the father movingly and with sufficient restraint to avoid the part lapsing into caricature.
The mother though (a spellbinding performance by Jessica Chastain) is the real heart and soul of the movie because it is her that recites what amounts to a love poem for its first 10 minutes or so; espousing her love of her beautiful sons and her love of god. The scene is set when she says “there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace” she implores her boys to follow the path of grace (of God) and she maintains an air of grace throughout.
Her eldest son, Jack, later to appear as Penn is the main protagonist and also performs bewitchingly; a first movie for Hunter McCracken – it will most certainly not be his last.
What makes this film so wonderful is the way that Malick (and his cinematographer Emannuel Lubezki – phenomenal) capture the universal truths of family life without it at any time feeling like cliche. I felt myself strongly empathising with young Jack, most powerfully as his adolescent rage boils up towards his father and the unfairness of adulthood. “Don’t do what I do, do what I say.” It’s visceral.
The Tree of Life is a central and recurring visual metaphor but is handled with subtlety and conviction.
So, with a far shorter art indulgence section this film would have been a 9/10. With it, it’s a 7.