Terrence Malick has been in the film industry for almost half a century but his output as a director has been limited, in his forty year career Malick has only directed six films but each of his five previous efforts have a mark of a director who is passionate about cinema and this is perfectly clear in the unique and wonderful visual beauty of all of his films. The Tree of Life is no different, visually it is stunning but like his most recent effort The New World may test the patience of the average cinema goer.
The Tree of Life is not a film is the traditional sense as there is a lack of a fully focused narrative but amongst the spiritual and religious musings of the director there is a story to be found which tells the tale of Jack O'Brian's (played by Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult) fractured relationship with his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt). We follow Jack's life through his birth to his adult life looking at the relationship between father and son. The film starts off with Mrs O'Brian (Jessica Chastain) being informed of her son's death (which I would guess was on military service).
There is a heavy Kubrickian influence on Malick's The Tree of Life as we get a visually spectacular, awe inspiring sight of the beginning of life itself, this is of course similar to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey which visually told the story of mankind from its creation. In fact the special effects photographer for The Tree of Life is the very same Douglas Trumbull who worked on Kubrick's 2001. After a spiritual introduction the film takes a more artistic approach and looks incredible enough that it would not look out of place in the world's finest art galleries, as there are superb images of the creation of the universe, exploding volcanoes and empathic dinosaurs (this seems to be a step too far into Malick's crazy minefield of ideas). As incredible as some of these shots are this is when some may begin to lose patience with the whole thing as audience members lost patience and walked out the theatre. Malick is an artistic filmmaker, he is not going to appeal to everyone and The Tree of Life is also not going to appeal to everyone, so if one really appreciates the more artistic elements of filmmaking than this is the film for you.
So visually the film is outstanding and Malick's cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (whose previous works include Malick's The New World and the sensational Children of Men) retains much of the films visual beauty in the sequences that have a narrative flowing through them. These sequences are expertly shot and give off a dreamlike feeling. The narrative sequences are excellently written and the performances, particularly by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (who, currently, is left, right and centre starring in many films back to back this year) are stunning. The minimal, nonlinear narrative is still compelling despite The Tree of Life being a film more focused on becoming an artistic triumph. Despite the films sequences of visual wonder when The Tree of Life is more focused on building a narrative the pace flows at more manageable speed. The film becomes more interesting to the casual viewer. For those with patience and also prepared to sit through what some would call the 'snobby arty stuff' they would be rewarded by a well crafted family drama. The relationship between the father and eldest son is fascinating and the character study that does indeed develop when the film focuses more on narrative is an engaging and emotional one.
The Tree of Life is a unique film from Malick who makes him films in a way that no other director does and it is hard not to appreciate how bold this original piece of work is trying to be but clearly The Tree of Life is occasionally a pretentious, waffling load of spiritual nonsense (this seems to be the common frustration which such a film) but it is hard not to be impressed by the artistic merits of a beautifully made film and it also hard not to admire the direction and the sights The Tree of Life has set for itself. Malick handles mostly everything rather well (the spiritual balderdash occasionally invites eye rolling) but Malick botches the ending somewhat and Sean Penn is horrifically underused, given no dialogue and is only left walking around in lifeless, unearthly surroundings. These unearthly surroundings are staggeringly beautiful as they represent Jack nearing the end of his life but Penn really should have been given something to do.
I appreciate what Malick is trying to do but I am also impressed by what he has done, his use of imagery and range of ideas are, at times, mesmerising. As a film critic you have to keep an open mind for all types of cinema. The Tree of Life is certainly one of those films that will split audiences; some will adore it for the artistic merits while some may hate it for that very reason seeing it more as a pretentious load of rubbish with enough spirituality to make you gag, while this may have a hint of the truth, one must keep an open mind. Some critics have hailed The Tree of Life as a modern masterpiece, there are too many flaws for The Tree of life for it to be labelled a masterpiece but Malick impresses yet again making films in a way in which only he can. It is a compelling piece of art on spirituality, religion, forgiveness, redemption, love, loss, hope and the meaning of life.