You’re all across The Tree Of Life, right? Sixth film in almost 40 years from Hollywood’s most reclusive and slow-moving auteur Terrence Malick? The bloke who made Badlands, and then Days Of Heaven, and … yes, you could comfortably list all his films, although they’re not exactly on TV every week. The Tree Of Life, which is sort of about a family in 1950s Waco, Texas, and the damage done to the eldest of three sons by a disciplinarian father, but is also about the meaning of life, and the wonders of creation, and nature versus grace, and the existence of God, or not (actually there’s no “not” about it), and is so cleverly and deliberately designed to blow your mind, not all critics have succumbed and are calling it overlong and ponderous and even preachy and manipulative. Others, meanwhile, are calling it a masterpiece. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It feels both European and American. It might be a masterpiece. It’s certainly not a film that’s been focus-grouped into submission – unless of course there was originally a cut that was even longer, and even more ponderous, and even more theologically manipulative.
If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Darren Aronovsky’s The Fountain, and The Lovely Bones, and the selected works of Jean Luc Godard – especially his more recent works – you’re about halfway to getting the picture. Which is not my way of saying it’s the kind of film you have to be a real smarty-pants to “get”. You don’t. The bulk of it is a fairly standard domestic drama in a period setting, with horseplay and tellings-off and tending to the lawn and dinner-table tension among the God-fearing. The bits where the origin of species and our potentially apocalyptic vanishing point are explored in mostly wordless, visually resplendent style, you choose how much to take from them. There would be nothing wrong with just sitting back and enjoying the pictures. They are amazing pictures – geological, astronomical, microscopic, biological, aerial, evolutionary – the sort you might see in an amazing documentary, except there they would be contextualised and narrated and stacked in some sort of order. Here, Malick uses these images – many of them pre-existing – to kind of wander off, deep in thought. The most protracted section comes within the first half-hour, just when you think you might be getting the measure of The Tree Of Life (“Oh, it’s about Sean Penn, who’s in the present, looked troubled, remembering his childhood in the 1950s – I get where we’re going here, no matter how elliptically that’s happening!”), and it’s oddly jarring. But pleasurable.
I saw it this morning. It is quite an unusual way to start your Monday. I like being surprised. And I like being confused, to a degree. I like not quite knowing what’s going on before my eyes. The dialogue is so minimal, with most of the wording coming through impressionistic fragments of whispered narration, that you’re sometimes left scrabbling for detail. When a van drives through the neighbourhood spraying DDT and the kids dance about in the clouds of poison, you might ordinarly be expected to make a connection with this and, perhaps, a tragic event that we already know about. But it’s not that straightforward. The image might just be an image. Malick is creating a whole here, not a series of easily-digested parts. It’s how you feel at the end that counts.
Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are well cast as the mum and dad, he all square-jawed and “Call me Sir” and ambitions thwarted but kept buttoned up beneath his starchy c0llars, and she all ethereal and saintly and pale, and Hunter McCracken is belieavable as the troubled adolescent tearaway, Jack, and these key performances (plus Sean Penn’s in the modern day, existentially crushed by skyscrapers) give ballast to what might otherwise be a collage of snapshots and memories and bad dreams. I wonder if they knew what was going on?
I emerged, blinking, into the sunlight of Soho feeling oddly reassured and uplifted. And I don’t believe in God. But it was that kind of experience, for me. I wouldn’t argue that hard with anybody who emerged feeling like they’d been prodded in the chest, or led up the garden path, or had 139 minutes of their life taken away by an old sentimental man who has only made six films in 39 years. The Tree Of Life is not for all.
But it was for me.