Still, ‘The Tree of Life’, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in May, offers breathtaking imagery and even manages to survive an epic detour to the dawn of time, featuring the Big Bang, dinosaurs, meteors and all. It’s so ambitious and full of inquiring ideas and questions about our place in the world that, perhaps inevitably, it feels like a grand folly – albeit a heartfelt and stimulating one. Such is the chaos of life, the universe and everything, maybe that’s the only appropriate outcome of such a project?
Here, Malick takes his interests in man’s essential nature to a more universal plane. You could say the film is set in the 1950s as it portrays, in fragmentary detail, the life of a ’50s family: a mother (Jessica Chastain), father (Brad Pitt) and three young sons, one of whom they lose as a teenager. Early on, the mother’s voiceover sets up a debate, asking whether man should follow the more selfish way of nature or the less selfish way of grace, and she and her husband embody both approaches. She is a loving presence, photographed among trees, birds and butterflies; he is a businessman, prone to anger, who tells his sons, ‘If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good.’
Time is fluid even in this chapter: it’s more poetic than real. But then the film takes an extraordinary leap. We go back millions of years in time, to the beginning of the world and a long section, complete with choral music, that stands as a staggeringly crafted hymn to creation. We see swirling gases, planets emerging and the beginning of life itself, which leads to plants, fish and dinosaurs. It suggests we should see the family of the rest of the film as an archetype, a typical family in Biblical terms even, and maybe not even of any particular time.
And yet, instead of looking back from the family to the context of pre-history, you could also look back to them from now and see their story as an origin tale for modern America. Malick prompts such a view by later showing one of the sons, played by Sean Penn, in the present day – in a vague business context in a modern city but also in more dreamlike scenes, wandering in the desert. In the film’s heavenly final scene, he gathers on a beach with a crowd of characters, including his own family as they were in the 1950s. It is then that the film will tip into an uncomfortable place for some. It feels overtly religious and even Christian (rather than just interested in the spiritual) as the sound of ‘Amen’ wails repeatedly from the soundtrack.
If ‘The Tree of Life’ sounds like a swirl of images and ideas, suggestions and juxtapositions, that’s exactly what it is. Taken alone, the film’s imagery should give great pleasure to Malick’s fans and newcomers alike. Leaving aside the novelty of the magically rendered pre-history scenes, the 1950s episodes look gorgeous. The elemental, crisp photography, making even suburbia look like a place close to nature, is incredibly alluring.
And yet for all the grand ideas and the sweep of history at its core, the film comes to feel repetitive and even simplistic. It’s not so crude as to portray Pitt’s character as demonic or evil, but its portrayal of Chastain’s character as an angel of the Earth begins to feel shallow, and the ritual loss of innocence that the sons go through also feels laboured. While it fascinates as much as it frustrates, the film’s saving grace is that it always feels honest and never cynical. It seems both relevant to us and personal to the filmmaker. It doesn’t always communicate well, and when it does, it can be trite, but it’s a film that’s incredibly beautiful and wide open for the taking.