Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a high-minded, high-concept, sincere and solemn film. It begins with what appears to be a ray of light and some choral music, then a fifteen-minute surge of words and images – boys playing, Brad Pitt glaring, Sean Penn worrying – that hint vaguely at a plot but will not let us settle. It’s a memorable experience – the camera, aptly, swoops in and amongst these scenes in disorientating, near-nauseating fashion. I think I liked this bit.
Then, all of a sudden, abstract CGI shapes and colours fill the screen. I was confused, not to mention worried that Malick was following Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void in attempting to extract profundity from Windows Media Player visualisations. But then: ah, planets forming. Dinosaurs roaming. This was some kind of history of the cosmos, like an updated Fantasia or high-budget Discovery Channel doc. Occasionally someone from the cast (who knows who) would offer breathy voiceover about the ‘way of nature’. I’d worked out what I was watching, but it remained unclear why.
After a full 40 minutes, the decent film within this froth finally gets going. Malick places us in the company of small-town, middle-income American family living in the not-too-distant past. We watch as three boys are born to Jessica Chastain, an angelic figure who speaks exclusively in whisper and is at one with butterflies. Pitt is her disciplinarian husband, a more complex, tortured soul who ‘hugs’ his children by grabbing them into his midriff and batting them on the head.
The boys’ upbringing makes for gripping and distinctive drama, excellently conveying childhood confusion, love, fear – and a sense of potential violence that’s achieved despite never showing much. I think this is partly down to Pitt’s superb performance, his eyes all troubled and jaw permanently clenched, and also the brilliance of Hunter McCraken, playing the eldest child Jack, shuffling around with extreme awkwardness and always looking ready to flinch.
The film concludes with a section apparently depicting the afterlife which I can’t even be bothered to describe. I love Sean Penn’s world-weary face but he is wasted here as the adult Jack, wandering around on a vast, grey beach, hugging what appear to be the lost souls of his former family. I found it overblown and meaningless.
The most powerful moments in cinema are often those which occur in our own minds as viewers – implied on screen but not spoken, or taking place just out of shot. The Tree Of Life works best when, in its middle section, it reins itself in and allows its messages to seep in slowly, under your skin. But this is ultimately a maximalist film which refuses to leave anything to the imagination: if Malick wants you to think about religion, he will impose continuous disembodied utterances about ‘the grace of god’; if he wants you to consider our place in the universe, he will actually depict the creation of the universe. A germ of a stunning piece of work is in there somewhere – but this is a film that leaves you wanting less.