Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life has changed the way I look at everything. The flutter of birds’ wings. Water flowing in a brook. The movement of grass on the breeze.
This is due, in part, to Malick’s personal brand of visual poetry, which brings a sense of awe to even mundane things. It’s also due to the film’s backside punishing length. While sitting there in the dark, watching this latest box of wonders Malick has so carefully prepared, I briefly began to wonder if I’d ever see the outside world again.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t find myself enthralled by The Tree of Life, far from it. Nor is it actually that long. At one hundred thirty-eight minutes, it’s shorter than Michael Bay’s forthcoming effects jamboree, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon.
There is, however, a sense of lethargy to The Tree Of Life that is at once hypnotic, yet occasionally infuriating. But like Malick’s The Thin Red Line, The Tree Of Life is as much a prayer or hymn as it is a conventional movie, and it ultimately rewards the viewer’s patience with moments of genuine beauty.
Told almost entirely from the perspective of a Texan family living in the 50s, The Tree Of Life is a philosophical exploration of birth, death and suffering, which contrasts the personal (bereavement, strict fathers and sibling rivalry) with the epically impersonal (the creation of the entire universe).
In scenes that have vague and probably incidental similarity to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, The Tree Of Life uses this little 50s family as an anchor, before leaping off into the abyss of time, depicting the birth of stars and planets with great splashes of oily colour and shivering violins.
But where Aronofsky’s mood piece tottered uncertainly and then staggered into self-parody (I adore Aronofsky, but when you find yourself tittering at a bald Hugh Jackson floating about in a space orb, you know something’s gone wrong), Malick remains surefooted at all times. That Malick gets away with a film that opens with a mother soliloquising over the loss of her son, before cutting to scenes of giant lizards wandering around prehistoric forests is surely a sign of genius. The Tree Of life also marks the first of the director’s films to feature dinosaurs, and unless Spielberg hands him the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise in a fit of madness, it will almost certainly be his last.
Cutting back to the present, Sean Penn shows up as Jack, the now fully-grown son of the domineering father played by Brad Pitt. While he’s given little to do other than stare morosely into the middle distance, Penn’s our link back to a modern world of glass, steel, aggressive suits and smart haircuts. His presence serves as a further contrast to the idyllic surroundings of his youth, and a glimpse into a corporate world not unlike the kill or be killed existence of the dinosaurs.
The film spends the greatest chunk of its time with Jack as a troubled youngster, teasing his smaller brothers, breaking windows and quietly resenting his father, a failed musician and inventor. Young actor, Hunter McCracken, is fantastic in these scenes, playing an embittered character with minimal dialogue to fall back on.
There’s an air of Kubrick’s 2001 to The Tree Of Life. It has the same ambitious sense of vastness, of how tiny we are when measured against the chasm of space and time, and also a similar structure, in which a relatively conventional drama is bookended by extraordinary sequences of creation.
The Tree Of Life is also like the happier reverse of another maverick filmmaker’s magnum opus, Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. Where Noe’s film stared into the mystery of death and infinity, and brought back anxiety and an overriding sense of nihilism, Malick peers into that same deep well and brings back hope. He contrasts our brief existence against eternity, and finds comfort.
The Tree Of Life, therefore, enriches the soul even as it punishes the backside, which isn’t an unfair trade, I’m sure you’ll agree.
In a summer season dominated by noisy films about men in capes, Tree Of Life serves as a thought-provoking, often startling antidote. In fact, maybe Spielberg should give Malick the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise, after all.