Set alight by a family tragedy, Terrence Malick’s beautiful The Tree Of Life spirals out from a son’s death into a divine celebration of life.
I Done A Bad, Bad Thing by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
The thorn in the side of non-narrative cinema is keeping an audience hooked all the way from the trailers to the credits. In The Tree Of Life, Terrence Malick’s solution is to dazzle viewers with stunning cinematography, and his film is certainly a textural delight. And for that reason alone, it deserves viewing on the big screen. A millefeuille of scenes from a life, The Tree Of Life branches out from its trunk story of a teenage son’s premature death, presumably during the Vietnam War, into a mother’s, brother’s and father’s grief. More psychological constructions than stories, their lives are pieced together out of a thousand glittering leaves – interwoven glimpses into a family’s history, bitter and angry but deeply rooted in the divine.
Possibly the best adaptation of the Book of Genesis you’re likely to see, Malick’s mastery of the image is astounding. From divine first light to Earth cracked from the vault, The Tree Of Life offers a mesmerising reconstruction of creation. Only its Jurassic Park nod to intelligent design strikes an uncelestial chord. Its requiem score and momentous scope reveal Malick’s rather Kubrickian intention, only a bone throw and a balletic planet away from 2001 A Space Odyssey. Maybe after previous genre pieces a la Kubrick, The Thin Red Line and The New World, The Tree Of Life is Malick’s own take on the Sixties sci-fi masterpiece. Even if his intertwined canopy of pollarded perspectives doesn’t quite hang together.
The film spirals from the story of a mother’s indescribable, faith-shattering grief at the loss of her 19-year-old son into a cinematic recreation of biblical beginnings, fraternal guilt-ridden spiritual wanderings finally centring around the moral turning point of a son cowed into anger by a domineering father. Rich seams of celluloid ore, golden moments crystallised into images, these streams of cinematic consciousness are straddled by meaningfully enigmatic, yet ultimately meaningless prose. The mother, so central to Malick’s depiction of the family tragedy is retroactively sidelined into hiding behind curtains and playing hide and seek while a wider discussion on faith, grace and personal relationships with God, is subsumed by bullish Brad and his wayward son.
While the church may not loom large in this Texan backwater – there’s nary a crucifix to adorn a wall or neck – faith provides the backbone to Malick’s film. Mother and son especially struggle in their personal relationships with God. Sean Penn’s vagaries up and down in a lift are baffling, but Jessica Chastain dazzles with her poetic snippets as the Irish-bred believer in search of grace, inconsolable at the bad things that happen to good people. Death here remains a mystery, unexplained by wars or politics. Instead answers lie only with God. And why He should neglect His loved ones, why they should fall from His hands, from grace, remains a deal breaker. He giveth and He taketh away, a capricious Old Testament God.
It’s only basking under this divine light that the central story of Jack and his wrathful father achieves its full meaning. Brad Pitt is God, a loving, scolding, terrifying father. A man with bitter dreams of being a concert pianist made small by life, who takes his resentment out on his children. Thy God is a jealous god. He rules with force, not by example and the weight given to this rough parenting only makes sense as a metaphor for a more heavenly Father. God may not always be good, or just, but He loves us all the same.
Like the sunflowers that fill the screen, some of God’s children are allowed to grow tall and flower, others, like weeds on the lawn, are uprooted, stopped in their tracks. Nature permeates through The Tree Of Life, the suburban street’s magnolias providing both beauty and structure, protection and comfort. The tree is a firmament, living proof of the Creation and an underplayed metaphor for God’s sheltering hand. Like a medieval woodcut, or a suburban street, it contains both the world’s good and evil, light and shade.
After Apichatpong Weerasethkul’s Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee last year and Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life this, next year’s prizewinner is likely to be another spiritual, cosmic extravaganza, perhaps by Gaspar Noe – just a bit less mindbendingly trippy. In the words of Cannes jury member Robert de Niro, Malick’s film has the size, importance and tension of a winner – just no cohesive plot to match. And surely that’s the point. But while narrative cinema usually demands an emotional participation from its viewers The Tree Of Life lacks this partnership, instead guiding its audience through an imagistic procession of ideas. Whether this is sufficiently democratic or engaging, it’s still enough to cause a heavenly crack.
The Tree Of Life is released in the UK on 8th July 2011