Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was always going to be billed as divisive, baffling, even pretentious. Maybe it was screened too early of a morning at the Cannes Film Festival to be able to enfold every critic in its warm embrace: on a high-wire that threatens at any moment to pitch him sideways from the heights of transcendent beauty to a plunge into grandiloquent navel-scrutiny, Malick, oblivious to the danger, has tended to turn cartwheels when he might have trodden tentatively. More than almost any other director, Malick has a reputation as a cinephile’s favourite, not least because he seems to have completely circumvented the commercial circuitry of cinema culture to make films completely on his own terms, at his own near-geologic pace. This might be taken to imply that his films are obtuse, obscure, or that dread word ‘difficult’ (by which we usually mean ‘worthy, probably nutritious, but barely entertaining). But The Tree of Life is far from mysterious, obtuse or baffling.As soon as you switch into Malick gear and ‘get’ what’s happening from the start, noting that it is told largely from the perspective of a man trying to recall the fragments of childhood memories that might explain his current emotional state, and a broad thesis on the way human experience is assembled from both minute, discreet sense memories (micro) and the inexorable and disinterested evolutionary project of the universe, you’re clear to indulge in the sensuous rush of it all. There really is no more interpretive work to be done. Unless, that is, you want to use the film as an inspirational assist to reflections of your own. The Tree of Life has central characters, a family who provide some kind of human anchor to its journey through space and time, but they are just one case study of human relations, and the film leaves spaces and contingencies where you can situate your own memories in relation to the bigger themes; it lets you fill in those gaps in the narrative’s fossil record with your own emotional specimens.
The broadest summary of the film’s aesthetic template is that it shuttles between tiny sensual details and inconceivably vast cosmic vistas, inviting, through the miracle of associative montage, to perceive patterns and lines of causality. Malick likes graphic matches across vast gaps of space and time – nebulae, rolling waves, the underside of a jellyfish, or the subtle echo of the primordial coils of early life reappearing on Pitt’s blueprint for a spiral structure (hey, if you stare long enough you start to draw these connections even where they might not have been intended). Some of these images are visual effects, modelled on photographs taken by the Hubble telescope (and thus not abstract evocations of the infinite, but ultra-modern mediations of otherwise unfathomable distances), others are shots of unfamiliar parts of the Earth, montaged in such a way as to suggest the early stages of the planet’s existence. Malick was always an expert at using image and sound to invoke contact between people and their environment – at this moment I’m thinking in particular of the sound of Linda’s dress brushing against the corn in Days of Heaven, but you probably have your own examples etched into your brain – and inciting an ineffable sense of a world that functioned independently of human experience of it; you never forget with Malick that the world extends beyond the limits of the body, so perhaps all the shots of that world going about its humanless business in The Tree of Life are surplus to requirements, restating what was less effortfully conveyed in a shot of vines choking a tree in The Thin Red Line, for instance. Perhaps Malick is late to the table, since the visual language he’s using in these sequences of natural imagery has been owned by the nature documentary, whereby the perfectly captured shot of a desert or ocean from barely-accessible angles below the surface of a wave or from low Earth orbit has fused the wonders of the planet with the wonders of HD camera technology. Or perhaps the film has deliberately reversed the balance of power, so that this is a film about the universe that occasionally acknowledges the presence of people. Where it transcends the nature documentary is in how it situates people both in a subordinate capacity (they’re smaller, pettier, more fragile than the universe) and as the celebrated core of the whole drama (they are the end product of all this evolutionary manufacturing, the ones with the power to perceive, and thus make historical sense of it all).
The majority of the ‘human scenes’ comprise the partial, fragmentary remembrances of Sean Penn as he examines his childhood for the causal evidence, the historical tributaries that might explain his apparent state of dis-ease with the world (evoked, rather emphatically, with queasy wide-angled shots of him rattling around inside glass-and-metal architectures that cut him off from the natural world), and as a result they simulate the workings of memory. There are pieces missing, we often get only glimpses of scenes that began before we got there, and continue after we leave, or we see close-ups of hands and parts of faces, obscured by saturating autumnal sunlight: most of our memories have dissolved, leaving only the most vivid sediment that can help us trace the wholeness that was once there. The soundtrack of classical music, as well as being a worthy counterpart to the ‘nature’ sections of the film, is also the echo of the records being played by Brad Pitt’s character, the boys’ father, throughout: it creates a gentle bond between the two registers (universal and domestic). The dialogue, especially when the boys are very young, seeps onto the soundtrack as if it’s coming from upstairs. Except, of course, for the voice-over narration, which has often struck me as Malick’s weak point – I rarely find it instructive or insightful, and here it rings out too much like a Calvin Klein ad.
There are other problems: the final scene is too obvious in its construction of an abstract memory space where all things converge, and it smacks too obviously of a celestial mythos, when everything previously had been left open to interpretation. Malick didn’t need to give us such an obvious visualisation of memories converging, of cosmic unity; I bet most viewers had already felt for themselves that the message of the film was that we are the product of our past (and the past of everything else) without it needing to be shown to us with an afterlife curtain call that gathers the cast together: you might feel like you’ve had a religious message delivered to you by stealth under the cover of scientific wonderment. The central theme of the drama, that the way of grace (mother) or the way of nature (father), seem like different paths to truth, but are actually co-dependent parts of the symmetry of things, is a beautifully concise framework that knits together the micro and macro pictures of cruelty and benevolence at home and across the galaxy, but it might, upon reflection, prove too schematic to offer much lasting substance or enigma for repeat viewings. And while the two boys at the centre of the human drama give astonishingly naturalistic performances (either that or Malick perfectly catches them unawares and in their natural habitat), Sean Penn too easily essays his usual shtick of looking like he’s weighed down and worn out from thinking too much about the pains of being middle-aged in late-capitalist America: it’s impressive that he can convey that so efficiently, but it’s so familiar that it distracts us from the freshness of the performances around him.
And yet this is still brave and powerful cinema. Brave because it operates on its own terms, with a brazenly old-fashioned faith in the ‘big’ composition, the awesome scope of a vast landscape, and the strength of ideas over narrative in keeping the viewer engrossed. Powerful, because even if you hate it, you will want discuss it, because it won’t get out of your head otherwise. You might even find yourself writing a review of it on your blog, and almost without thinking about it, you’ll use all kinds of grand statements that you would normally keep to yourself.