Sunday, 26 June 2011

'The Tree of Life' review:

With only his fifth feature film in just over thirty years as a director, elusive American auteur Terrence Malick continues his fixation with now familiar motifs: images of white picket fences, long grass and sunlight flickering through the trees accompanied by softly spoken classically American narrators pondering existential themes. Discussions of God, nature and morality rendered poetic and lyrical in movies which liberate this visual medium from dialogue and even go some way towards rejecting conventional narrative form.

'The Tree of Life' stars Brad Pitt as an authoritarian father - a middle American salesman in the 1950s - and the bulk of the film follows his interactions with wife Jessica Chastain and three sons, one of whom is played by a haggard-looking Sean Penn in infrequent glimpses into the future. It's a series of moments and a prevailing mood rather than a complex, three-act story: a father and son tale which sets its characters in the context of a vast universe, pre-historic life and the end of time itself. A slow and deliberately paced "nothing happens" movie in which literally everything happens. There are even dinosaurs.

Yet for all the breathtaking cinematography and fine performances (especially from Pitt), 'The Tree of Life' is undermined in its scope and grandeur by the existence of the less literal and more abstract '2001', and also by the Charlie Kaufman written 'Adaptation', in which a pretentious screenwriter seems to pre-empt the film (suggesting a movie which shows the creation of all life from small organisms to human beings for the purposes of parody). It's ripe with "meaning" and each whispered piece of narration is clearly supposed to be incredibly deep. Yet the philosophical aspect of 'The Tree of Life' is disappointingly simplistic.

As ever, Malick's depiction of female characters leaves a lot to be desired. In his films - with the possible exception of 'Badlands' - women are made of fine porcelain and (presumably because of the womb) are depicted as pure parts of nature to be negotiated and understood by male characters. I'm sure Malick means this as a positive - praising mothers upon a pedestal in the Catholic tradition - however it is deeply patronising and this inherent female closeness to nature and, by proximity, God prevents Chastain's character from being any more than a romantisied cipher. By contrast the father and his sons are allowed to show more emotional range and are given permission to change and grow over the course of the narrative.

'The Tree of Life' offers a simplistic and idealistic version of nature and of our place within it, where spirituality is unchallenged from its dominant Hollywood position where it stands for "depth" and "truth". In this way Malick has made a movie which supports the dominant ideology almost wholeheartedly, however ambitious it might be in scale. It's a seductive tapestry and, in a few instances, it is genuinely heartfelt, yet something is missing. The anti-war sentiment of 'The Thin Red Line' and its critique of capitalism ("the whole thing's about property") or the nihilistic, satirical edge of 'Badlands', seem like they come from a very distant place from 'The Tree of Life', which unambiguously advocates an intelligent design view of life on our planet. Religion has always formed a large part of the sub-text, and even the text, of Malick movies - but never to the same extent as this passionate hymn.

That is not to say that 'The Tree of Life' is not one of the best films of the year so far. The simple fact that it is in any way comparable to something as seminal as '2001', and that the director has constructed something so intimate yet epic, is enough to cement its place as one of the year's best films and a likely Oscar contender for next February. In terms of imagery and sound design it is almost peerless and the use of digital effects is wondrous and inspiring.

'The Tree of Life' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and released in the UK on July 8th.


  1. Good review. I haven't seen it yet but can't wait to do so though. My bet is on this movie at next year's Academy Awards!

  2. A superb review Rob, puts my own feelings towards the film into the words that I had been struggling to find.