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Review - The Tree of Life

28 Jul 2011
Terrence Malick's fifth film is finally here and it's a transcendent and sometimes frustrating experience
A young boy rages against the overbearing presence of his father while his future self tries to come to terms with his past amidst a millennia-spanning tableaux of life, love and loss in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

Malick’s fifth film finally makes it to local cinemas in the wake of distributor tussles and festival success at Cannes. For the most part, the film traces the youth of Jack (Hunter McCracken) as he is torn between the influences of his affectionate and spiritual mother (Jessica Chastain) and his practical father (Pitt). As the narrative meanders its way through significant events in his young life, we also flash forward to Jack as an adult (played by Sean Penn) and even take a trip back to pre-history for a glimpse at the formation of the universe.

You can’t fault Malick’s ambition and the sweep of the themes, combined with some stunning imagery and his most epic scale to date makes for one of the more mesmerising films of the year. When the creation sequence arrives around the midpoint, tearing the audience away from the regular movements of the narrative, it’s a peerless exercise in subdued spectacle, with the dance of planets, amoeba and early life reaching beyond the screen to envelop the viewer.

This lengthy sequence bleeds seamlessly into an extended snapshot of the early years of the male lead, from the proud father cradling his son’s miniscule foot to tantrums and near magical interactions with nature. Throughout, Malick’s camera ducks and weaves effortlessly along with its unpredictable subject, in a display of unforced naturalism that’s next to impossible to capture in film. The use of inexperienced actors might have caused problems for a lesser director but there’s nothing distracting about the occasional glances to camera, as Malick invests his handheld shots with a sense of presence that includes the audience in their revelry.

The transcendent middle third of The Tree of Life is by far the most successful portion of the film, using its classical score to great effect as the spectacle both distracts from and embellishes the rather meagre narrative. As the contemplative flow of the film resumes and Jack’s youthful angst begins to grate upon the stubborn ideals of his father, there’s a flicker of focussed drama which soon fizzles in favour of yet more portentous voice over. Those familiar with Malick’s occasional work should be used to the device by now and while it certainly helps to lend a subjective voice to the abstract structure of the piece, the words themselves are often more opaque than helpful.

For fans of the director, the fluid meanings and elusive finale won’t come as much of a surprise, though he moves closer to pretentious here than he has since 1978’s Days of Heaven. And newcomers are certainly in for a visual and aural treat with some of the most jaw dropping locations you’ll ever see on screen and a perfect score – including an exultant crescendo accompanied by Bedrich Smetana’s Má Vlast. The performers do solid work with their screen time between marvellous images, especially the young kids who seem remarkably real on screen. But Pitt steals the film, doling out harsh life lessons fuelled by a ferocious kind of love which he can’t express.

The Tree of Life is highly recommended for viewing on the big screen due to the preponderance of luscious images and a full blooded presentation which approaches the audio/visual assault of an experience like Koyaanisqatsi. But the fluidity of the overall meaning and themes can lead to frustration, while Malick’s gets a little too bogged down in his own sense of wonder, leading to a running time bloat that lets the pacing flag.