Film review: TREE OF LIFE, from Built For Speed

Is Tree of Life a deeply profound statement of man’s relationship with God, the natural world and death or is it just an annoyingly pretentious load of cobblers? Such will be the heated debate following every screening of Terence Malick’s befuddling epic. This is the notoriously non-prolific Malick’s first film in six years and it certainly exudes the writer/ director’s phenomenal and obsessive craftsmanship.  Despite this and a Palme d’or at Cannes, this film will leave many enraged as evidenced by the audience at my screening who were about ready to go after Malick with pitchforks.

Malick’s vast and confusing story actually fuses two separate films. One plays like a trippy nature documentary depicting no less than the beginning of the universe and the end of time as well as footage of spawning amoeba and dinosaurs. The perplexing images often resemble 2001: A space odyssey and that classic head-scratcher Koyaanisqatsi. Plonked in the middle of all this is a semi-coherent story about a troubled family living in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s. Brad Pitt plays the family’s brooding, embittered patriarch who imparts harsh, often violent life lessons on his three boys and his wife (Jessica Chastain). In scenes that recall one of those cheesy circle-of-life insurance ads, a crumpled Sean Penn appears in the present day as the eldest son who is still staggering under the weight of his tortured family memories.

There’s no denying this is a stunning piece of film artistry with Malick’s poetic sensibility, Emmanuel Lubezki’s vivid cinematography, the legendary Douglas Trumble’s special effects and Pitt’s intense performance creating a potent mix of visual beauty and unsettling anger. The film’s visual style, imagery and mood evoke the familiar Malick themes of lost innocence and the battle between nature and the mechanised world. Apparently the 50’s sequence (I suspect not the dinosaur part) is also semi-autobiographical.

The physical attractiveness and intriguing tone of the film, however, do not entirely overcome the irritation at the film’s obtuse narrative, quasi-religious pretensions and the apparent disconnection between the 50’s family sequence and the rest of the film.

Has Malick reached too far and crashed like Icarus or Oliver Stone in the 90’s? It may only be on reflection a few years from now that we’ll be able to assess the film’s true value. For now at least it is a fascinating document of Malick’s wild ambition and talent for visual splendour.

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