This is how I felt after emerging from Dalston’s Rio this evening, trying to get my head round Terence Malick’s latest movie Tree of Life. It is also a shot from the film itself – Sean Penn, stumbling around looking for clues in a dream-like desert sequence.
Tree of Life is a bizarre, extraordinary piece from the reclusive director of Badlands and The Thin Red Line. It tells the story – inasmuch as it features any linear narrative – of an unassuming but overtly religious family in 1950s Waco. The father (Brad Pitt) is a disciplinarian, teaching his three sons the importance of force, and that to succeed in life you cannot be ‘too good’. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is an angelic, permissive figure, declaring (in mumbling tones over the film’s opening) that one must choose between the ‘way of nature’ and the ‘way of grace’. The middle of the three sons of this couple tragically dies at age 19. It is the eldest son, Jack, that Sean Penn plays as an adult. We see him adrift in the modern world, surrounded by sharp-angled city skyscrapers, confessing to his father on the phone that he thinks about his dead brother every day.
Yet before we flashback to the 1950s childhood – where the majority of the film’s time is spent – Malick chooses to take us on a brief detour to the formation of the universe. All irony aside, these sequences are beautifully shot, with explosions, the formation of planets, and the birth of life. Eventually we get to dinosaurs – perhaps the most ridiculous sequence of the film, when one dinosaur, ready for the kills, shows the first instance of compassion in letting his prey live.
We then return to the 1950s childhood in Waco, Texas. Brad Pitt’s performance as the dominating father is superb, and we witness the loss of innocence of eldest son Jack as his fathes business interests take a turn for the worse, and he grows up into a rebellious teenager. In the modern day, adult Jack enters a dreamlike sequence where he is reunited and reconciled with his family, including his dead brother.
I could search for hours and draw out profound truths from this film, but I would quite possibly be loading it with meanings it doesn’t intend and doesn’t deserve. In large part, it deals in platitudes. It seems to me overtly Christian in its meaning, though this is certainly not the main problem. Instead, it is that the honesty and sincerity Malick loads into imagery and narrative attempt to be so profound that they end up almost meaningless. Maybe this is because it is difficult for me to related to both losing a child and growing up in 1950s America. It certainly feels like an intensely personal project. It’s ultimately too easy to smirk and mock, and too difficult to draw out the profound meaning for which I can only assume Malick was going for. Despite the divine creation sequence, featuring sumptuous photography, and superb performance from Brad Pitt, Tree of Life didn’t live up to it’s pre-viewing hype.