The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

What's it about? For the most part, it's about the childhood memories of Jack (Sean Penn), as he recalls growing up in 1950s Texas with his two brothers, his loving mother (Jessica Chastain) and his disiplinarian father (Brad Pitt). But it's also a meandering meditation on Life, the Universe and Everything. With some dinosaurs in it. No joke.


Is it any good? What to make of this? It's a delicate evocation of childhood memories, impressively conjuring up a mood (rather than a straightforward story) which captures loss-of-innocence and coming-of-age feelings. Juxtaposed with this are sequences depicting the formation of the Universe, evolution of life on Earth, dinosaurs and a mysterious light in space, which are presumably intended to pose Big Questions about our place in the grand scheme of things, God and the meaning of Life. So it seems rather mean to criticise a film that is so obviously personal and heartfelt about its themes, especially given its ambition and the lovely imagery involved. But I'm going to anyway. Because for long stretches, the film is, well, boring. The whispered questions which strive to know the mind of God become tiresomely repetitive and it all feels rather preachy. And there is such a thing as too much choral music. If you're a parent, it might make you think about how you are influencing your children. If you have parents, it might make you think about how they influenced you. Or it might make you wonder about dinosaurs. But then, you shouldn't really need a film to make you think about those things. All the same, it's the first film in a long while that i've felt rather guilty about not liking. I wanted to like it; it certainly provides more food for thought than the average film and there were even moments I felt it was starting to touch my cold, black heart, but by the time we got to the final beach-walk, i'd had enough. Sorry, God.


I don't trust you. What do others think? Well , it pretty much polarized opinions. When it screened at Cannes film Festival, half the audience applauded, the other half laughed and booed. It went on to win the Palme d'Or, although the notoriously reclusive Malick wouldn't turn up to collect it. Upon general release, it was described either in glowing terms ("magnificent", "challenging", beautiful") or scathing ones ("dull", "pretentious", "self-absorbed"). Perhaps the wisest advice was from Sean Penn who did not entirely like the final product. "A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact." he said. "But it’s a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It’s up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved." Pity the film wasn't that succinct. Or this review, come to think of it.

Anything else I should know? Whatever you think of their meaning, the Universe segments are extremely striking to look at and were created with old-skool techniques by the effects team, which included the legendary Douglas Trumbull who had worked on the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which The Tree of Life bears much comparison with. This little clip gives a nice insight into the processes involved.


What does the Fonz think? "Are you there God? It's me, Terrence."




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