(Terrence Malick, 2011)
For all the talk about this being a non-narrative film and a tone poem, whst surprised me about it is that for much of its central sequence it is a decidedly narrative experience. There are characters, tensions, events take place, people learn, suffer and grow, time passes in a mostly linear fashion. There is little plot, and Malick's style is far from the mainstream; instead it is elliptical, fragmentary, intent on the tensions and possibilities of the interplay between sound and image.
The story follows a middle-aged architect (Sean Penn), struck by a bout of inertia and depression in modern-day Dallas, shot by Malick at a perpetual low angle so that it's immense towers of gleaming glass and steel loom over his unhappy protagonist throughout. His mood is either sparked by thoughts of his boyhood and his dead brother or his depression leads to the thoughts; either way, we appear to spend much of the film inside his head as memories and fantasies wheel Past. As such Tree of Life recalls much great modernist fiction, microscopically examining the self in a stream of consciousness. Malick is an extraordinarily gifted director at capturing mood and texture; the sequences of life as a boy in 1950s Texas ring with truth and the vivid shiver of sense memory. It seems universal, this portrayal of the empty days and wonders and worries of childhood, since it reminded me in many ways of my own boyhood in Dublin in the 1980s.
Of course, Malick being Malick, he poses bigger questions through his intimate drama. Mainly through voiceover - but also through the dichotomy the boy feels between his father and mother, representing nature and grace, "wrestling" inside him and played out nicely in almost very aspect of his interactions with them - he teases the issue of faith and meaning in the world. The loss of his brother, an almost angelic presence in his scenes, complicates these questions, and is foreshadowed by a drowning incident the family witnesses and a friend badly burned in a house fire. There is something very "new age" about Malick's treatment of the issue of mortality and the afterlife, best (or worst) seen in the liminal scene that ends the film.
But his ambition is otherwise tremendous; the films best passage, the fluid intercutting of the first act, which juggles timeframes, modes and moods to dazzling, unprecedented effect, is followed by the 20 minute "birth of the universe" sequence, featuring some exhilarating fx and those controversial dinosaurs. While giving the personal questions central to th film's identity a wider, more Epic dimension, I understood this passage as part of Jack's struggles with the world. If much of the film sees him skirt the question of where and why his brother has gone, here he idly envisions where he (and everybody) came from, and by extension, why. The little dinosaur morality play we are shown makes sense in the context of the struggle between his parents and his uncomfortable positioning between them.
As the sterner of those parents, Brad Pitt does some of his best ever work, presenting a complex, flawed man who loves his sons but cannot help but transfer some of his frustration on them. Jessica Chastain has less to work with. Presented as a saintly presence, she is luminous and good at grief. The boys are all well-cast and excellent.
The thing most people will take from Tree of Life is its pure sensual beauty. Stunningly photographed by Emmanuel Luzbeki, whose sensibility compliments Malick's well, it fetishises 1950s Americana in some indelible, unforgettable imagery. Malick has always had a fine eye, and here the mix of perfectly composed still tableaux with countless swoops and sweeps of his camera - many at hip level, better to capture the subjective eye of a child - is exhilarating. The use of some lovely Classical pieces alongside Alexandre Desplaat's score only makes it even more lush and ravishing.
People go to a film like this expecting answers of some sort, I think. But Malick only asks questions and treats an audience like adults by leaving the rest to us. The fact that he has the ambition and poetic vision to make such an assured, complex and exquisite film - and the fact that he is allowed to - seems like a minor miracle.