The Tree of Life


Does God exist within the fabric of nature (and in turn, evolution) or through the process of design, or is he merely a passive observer of events? Are one’s memories of a given event also given to fabrication to fit within the truth we have established? Are such concepts as a driven narrative and dialogue over-rated?

Welcome to The Tree of Life – you may enjoy your stay, you may not; but that doesn’t really matter, this isn’t a film in the conventional sense but rather one mans personnel meditation on life, the universe and everything else that he wishes. It’s both epic and intimate in scale, serious and alarmingly po-faced at times. On this viewing I loved it, at other times I suspect that it will annoy my intensely. It’s that sort of film. Some of the audience complained afterwards that nothing really happened and that everything was left unresolved (a valid criticism on one level) – presumably they’d never seen another Terrance Malick film.

I wondered whether to include spoilers about it when writing this – in truth a brief synopsis of the film doesn’t really do it justice. It could be about those things, it might not. Everyone who watches it will bring their own personnel interpretation to the film, indeed this could be the directors focus – how will something deeply personnel to me reflect on the audience (and any arguments that this film isn’t deeply personal for the director can be quickly shot down, there is no way that this cannot be every frame is so lovingly crafted). The plot is largely irrelevant; the film is an exercise in creating a sense of mood and emotion, so it’s left largely to comment on the individual technical aspects.

Cinematography; one theme that has run throughout Malick’s output (if five films in forty years can be argued to be an output) has been the focus on nature (and man’s effect upon nature) as a means of telling the story. Here is almost reaches its zenith, the camera no longer distinct but almost present in its close, hand held and intimate focus upon the principles – although this is not the aggressive, lightning fast hand held style that we have become used to over the last few years, but rather a light, dreamlike sense that draws us into the action. Often we feel like an observer watching the events in person, but from a distance (almost mirroring one of the principle characters). It’s pure artifice (one gets the sense that for every hour shot, ten must exist of similar footage, although there’s a sense of improvisation to much of it).

Incredibly this dreamlike state extends to sequences that take in the birth of the universe and the beginnings of life on Earth, almost presenting the idea of God’s view of the proceedings. Here the camera glides across rivers before resting on the dying form of a dinosaur – yes, the rumours are true (it felt almost like a joke when it was first rumoured two years ago, now it seems the most logical thing about the film in some respects). It’s at once both moving and hilarious, it could be serious, and equally it could be a massive joke at the expense of the audience.

Note: It’s also nice to see a return to physical, slow effects for these sequences. Douglas Trumball (of 2001 fame) has returned from retirement to create a series of impressionistic vista for these sequences with high speed camerawork, smoke and coloured liquids. Somewhat surprisingly given the proliferation of CGI for this type of work these days, the leaps and bounds in camera technology (it’s one of the few films shot recently on film) mean that the effects do not feel dated, although the impressionistic nature is very forgiving.

Performances; with every film he’s in it’s becoming increasingly easy to praise Brad Pitt’s performance. Here once again delivers an example of anti-acting (although given the nature of the rest of the film it’s as much a performance shaped in the editing room as anything else) in what is the most complex role of the film (and the source of much of the – slim – narrative that exists). He creates a father figure that is simultaneously both likeable (he seems to be fundamentally decent) and a source of hatred, much of the turmoil exists because of his actions (or lack of), it’s not an out and out villain role, but the sort of sociopathic role that he seems to have been attracted to of late. It’s not the standout however.

For much of the film the tone is set by Hunter McCracken in the role of the eldest son who sort of drifts through an endless summer on the cusp of adulthood. Torn between his fathers domineering aspects (which probably reflects in his success later in life) and his mother’s sensitivity he seems adrift in the world. He knows that all of this will end, but doesn’t know if it will end because of him (the anger he harbours towards his father) or just as part of life. Watching the performance there’s again the sense that we’re only seeing a tenth of the performance that was filmed such is the naturalistic tone. I’m half torn between wanting him to fade away into obscurity, never to make another film, or see what else he’s capable of.

Sean Penn has the most thankless role as the future (present) version of this character, seemingly lost in a modern world or on the edge of the afterlife. I can only recall him having one line of dialogue, mumbled at the edge of the screen (which seems to indicate his father is still alive), instead having to convey everything through expression alone. Penn has always been a fine actor, but unfortunately he’s so intense that it’s sometimes difficult to read him.

Direction; is it direction? Or has the camera been set up merely as a passive observer? There’s a real artifice to the direction, but it’s been rendered almost invisible by the depth to which it’s been considered, reinforcing the documentary feel (outside of the birth of the universe scenes obviously). As much work has been done in the editing room, despite its glacial tone it never feels slow or ponderous, but moves at a more natural pace.

In many ways this is a clear definition of a Marmite film, the only thing I can think of from the last few years that is anywhere near as decisive is Synecdoche New York (which similarly I loved when I first saw it, found intensely irritating on a second viewing but still want to see again). Many of its problems come from comparison with his past films – it is in no way as strong as The Thin Red Line (nor The New World & Badlands for that matter) and the lack of narrative at times does get in the way. However a film like this is such a rarity that it feels dishonest to complain for these reasons, there’s unlikely to be another film like it this year (or next for that matter). Highly recommended, but be prepared to hate it for all the reasons I loved it.

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