After watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life my overall impression was one of awe. However, as the film ended at least one person in the cinema guffawed. Whilst thankful that they withheld their opinion until the credits, I was also unsurprised by, and understanding of, their reaction. In its unerring confidence and towering ambition The Tree of Life can be at once profoundly affecting, breathtakingly beautiful and unapologetically pompous. But is that a problem?
The film opens with a middle aged Sean Penn in a shimmering modern metropolis, reflecting on his past and his brother, who died aged 19. When a loved one dies it’s near-impossible to fully comprehend who they were and understand their relationship with the world. It is this bold feat that Malick’s film strives to achieve in its mediation on death and celebration of life.
The storytelling is primarily visual, and the construction is anything but traditional. Even after an extended sequence depicting the universe’s birth, once the film fixates on 1950’s suburban America, dialogue does not drive the narrative, and ethereal sequences are favoured over conversational scenes. In these sequences we are offered snippets of dialogue amidst evocative images flowing like memories. Initially a cosy fairytale existence, the father’s (Brad Pitt) stern discipline soon creates rifts in the family, and the boys experience anger and confusion as an affecting, believable upbringing unravels. Classical music pervades the film, dialogue often muted so that themes are evoked through abstract means.
Due to this construction, many have branded The Tree of Life pretentious, a word which is hurled around readily, chastising any film that has ambitions beyond standard convention. Pushing artistic boundaries should be encouraged, not persecuted. Where would cinema be without the likes of F.W Murnau, Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard who innovated, rather than mimicked? With the bulk of Hollywood’s recent output cohering to basic models (insert plot development here, romance there and giant robots throughout etc.) we need daring directors like Malick, David Lynch and Lars Von Trier to explore cinema’s limits.
But is such flamboyance necessary in recounting childhood memories? It’s certainly not a requirement of cinematic greatness and, in fact, understatement can often be far more poignant. For example, Yasujirô Ozu’s films delicately observe familial relationships through a deceptively simplistic and nuanced visual poetry that doesn’t require so much as a camera movement. But while Ozu’s style is perfect for reflecting a humbling, traditional Japanese lifestyle, contemplating the effects of modernity on this culture and considering how this reflects human nature, Malick has sought a visual style to suit his intentions. Though grand gestures risk overlooking subtle details, the overall message from his sumptuous collage is one of universal interconnectivity. We are presented with the trials and wonders of a universe in which nothing is insignificant; everything has its place in the astral waltz.
In its pious conviction the The Tree of Life can seem, at points, bloated and preachy. However, while an air of Christian worship pervades powerfully, a stimulating ambiguity underlies the majestic synthesis of sound and image. In snippets of narration from the central characters conflicting views are presented; the wife’s virtuous submission to God’s grace opposes the father’s fiercely competitive temperament. These statements can often seem incomplete and naïve though. Towards the end the mother talks of how happiness can only be gained through love, but the object of this love – God, family, art or other – is unspecified, the thought left to drift away.
Though occasionally hollow, the fruits of The Tree of Life are mostly filled with wonder, heartbreak and beauty, and are truly food for thought. Malick isn’t just indulging himself, but offering his vision for us to share, and lose ourselves in. It’s a vision that could only work in the medium of film, and a celebration of cinema’s potential. Surely that entitles it to some pride?