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Saturday 24 February 2018

Film Review: The Tree of Life * * * *

Brad Pitt is admirably
focused as a devoted but frustrated dad
Brad Pitt is admirably focused as a devoted but frustrated dad

Paul Whitington

We film critics get into a right old fluster whenever a new Terrence Malick is released: small wonder really, as they don't come along too often. Remarkably for a man with such a stellar reputation, Malick has only released five feature films including this one during a career that spans more than 40 years.

His reputation rests on two extraordinary movies released in the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, both sternly original works of genius in which Malick's masterful style and grand themes overwhelm the banalities of narrative.

Almost uniquely in American cinema, Malick is a genuine artist. He works only on projects he believes in, is famously reclusive and disappeared from film-making for 20 years rather than settle into Hollywood hackery. No wonder his every cinematic utterance is pored over lovingly by adoring critics, but it ought to be remembered that Malick doesn't always get it right. For all its formal beauty, The Thin Red Line is not quite as good a war film as everyone said it was when it came out, and his period drama The New World is -- to put it mildly -- problematic.

So, for me, is The Tree of Life; a staggeringly bold and gorgeously made opus that ultimately fails to reach that state essential for all truly great art -- unity. It is, however, at times quite breathtakingly accomplished, and no one who cares about cinema at all should miss it.

Sean Penn is Jack O'Brien, a middle-aged, present-day architect who seems deeply troubled by childhood memories of a lost brother. In a series of haunting opening scenes beautifully composed by Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, we are taken back to 50s Texas to meet Jack's mother and father, the yin and yang of his inner world.

His mother (Jessica Chastain) is a dreamy, ethereal, unworldly soul who showers her children with uncritical love, but his father (Brad Pitt, in admirably focused form) is more complex.

Though undoubtedly fiercely devoted to his family, he is a frustrated musician and inventor who demands unquestioning obedience from his boys. His behaviour at times borders on the abusive, and his wife and kids live in fear of his changing moods. But the good in him is plain to see, and Jack's confusion and ambivalence about his father pushes him towards mild delinquency as he begins to come of age.

Those powerfully evocative and lyrical domestic passages present as compelling a coming-of-age narrative as I've seen in a film, and skillfully tease out the themes of lost innocence and a battle in the human soul between the polarised forces of violence and love.

Malick, though, has grander plans than a mere family saga. Twenty-odd minutes in, he diverts abruptly from Jack's story to a sweeping, meticulously constructed visual account of the creation of the universe, the solar system, the Earth and the first life-forms to emerge from the primordial slush. Even God is present, a glowing, reddish presence that hovers in the middle of a darkened screen, perhaps watching us, possibly indifferent.

All of this is brilliantly done, and Malick lays on the carefully chosen strains of Brahms, Couperin and Berlioz's sublime Requiem to create an overwhelming audio-visual experience. If these sequences recall the work of that other great American cinematic visionary, Stanley Kubrick, that's not a coincidence: Malick hired Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, to create The Tree of Life's special effects the old-fashioned, organic way, using paint and chemicals and high-speed photography.

Which is all very laudable, but at times Malick's grandiose visions of creation seem as aimless and pretentious as Kubrick's space-time evocations in 2001. More importantly, the creation sequences don't really mesh well enough with the underlying story, which is clearly semi-autobiographical and very deeply felt. That family saga has the stronger focus, and Malick might have found a way of more harmoniously marrying that story to his spiritual themes without recourse to pyrotechnics.

Still, it's all magnificently done, and only Malick would have had the nerve to address the exceedingly unfashionable topic of faith in a big-budget studio film. It's a film like no other, and a film well worth seeing.

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