THE TREE OF LIFE opens with a mother in an idealised 1950s American Suburbia reacting to a telegram telling her that her that her son has died. This is inter-cut with a middle-aged man in a contemporary American city - a prisoner of the sterile modern architecture that he has helped create. We intuit that this man is her son, the elder brother of the child who died. And he too is trying to make sense of his grief - to unravel the meaning of his life and his brother's death - and to understand - on the most profound existential level - "how did I get here?"
This opening prologue sets up both the style and themes of the movie that is to follow. Stunning photography of the natural world set against the world that ambitious men have created. Whispered voice-overs questioning the meaning of existence - the choice between Grace and Ambition. The audience left to intuit what is really happening - and to glory in the sensory experience. I suspect that most viewers will know at this point whether they are going to find the film a pretentious, wilfully obscure film over-loaded with hokey spiritual themes, or a cinematic masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of narrative cinema and has an earnest engagement with spiritual matters that leaves most contemporary cinema looking superficial and banal. I fell into the latter camp.
And so, after its opening prologue, the film moves into its first act - the most challenging in the film and presumably the point at which many audience members walk out. Because the questioning brother, now grown-up, tries to answer his questions by taking us right back to the beginning. Not to the beginning of his brother's life, but to the beginning of life itself. We are immersed into a twenty minute display of creation - Kubrickian visuals that are quite simply wonderful in the literal sense of that world. Writer-director Terrence Malick wants us to wonder at the glory of nature - the power and beauty of it - but also to see that the tendency toward brutality was always there - even from the time of the pre-history. My reaction to a scene where a dinosaur holds down the head of another injured dinosaur, and then tentatively lifts up his foot, was to see this is the same questioning of grace versus brutality. I wouldn't blame others if they thought, WTF?
In the second act we return to 1950s suburbia, and see the birth of three sons of the family. Brad Pitt plays the father, truly loving but also a strict disciplinarian. It is a nuanced performance and arguably the best of his career. He has a harsh self-improvement philosophy, and is feared rather than loved by his children. The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is cast as a kind of Virgin Mary figure - loving, forgiving, gentle, a source of succour. She looks on mournfully as she sees the father castigate the children. And so we have embodied the battle between the Ambition and Grace. It is a battle that the father ultimately loses - his musical career and his patents come to nothing - and they have to leave their family home in a scene that ends the second act. He admits in a voice-over that his striving has brought him nothing but estrangement from his family and disappointment. He demands kisses from his children, he knows that they hate him. The one son he is truly proud of - who he accompanies on the piano in a marvellous scene - is killed. And the elder son, who watches this scene of intimacy from outside the window, is left resentful.
That isn't to say that this section of the movie is depressing - there are scenes of children goofing around that made me utterly nostalgic for my own childhood - and all portrayed with an intimacy that is captivating. The camera is typically placed at the height of a child, looking around table-legs or looking up at adults. And the mother is portrayed in one particular scene as floating in the air - just as a little kid might ideate his mother as a kind of angelic figure. It is truly beautiful.
In the final act of the film, we move into a kind of dream world, where the questioning middle-aged son is reunited with his family from the 1950s - including his kid brother. The mother and father are overjoyed to see the little boy, it feels to anyone familiar with the Bible like a reunion in paradise. And then we have, after two hours of questioning, a scene that I found utterly cathartic - a scene in which the mother seems to accept that God has taken her son, "I give him back to you", surrounded by the supporting embrace of the people on the beach. A lot of reviewers have criticised this scene in particular as being an unnecessary epilogue - detracting from the scenes in suburbia. But to me, this is the most crucial part of the film. Without it, we have no resolution, no closure, and the film really has been for nothing.
I am fully aware at how earnest and pretentious this review might seem. What can I say? Malick approaches his material with such a sense of wonder and goodness and earnest questioning - his films are quite without cynicism and it seems mean-spirited to approach them with anything but that same degree of earnestness. I suspect that this unabashed, heart on your sleeve approach - this wide-eyed wonder at the beauty of nature and the goodness in the world - is what irks so many modern viewers, so used to post-modern irony and nihilism. This is a film that comes from a time before ironic detachment. In fact, it wants us to jump into our sensory experiences, without barriers, and to really feel everything. It is, in that sense, a truly radical, truly stunning, beautiful, graceful film. It is, to my mind, Malick's best work since Badlands, a worthy winner of the Palme D'Or, and a true pantheon film.
THE TREE OF LIFE played Cannes 2011 where it won the Palme D'Or. It was released earlier this year in France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Greece, Israel, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Poland, Germany, Austria, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia. It was released this weekend in Hong Kong, Thailand, Ireland, the UK and the USA. It opens on August 12th in Japan; on August 25th in New Zealand and Finland; on September 2nd in Norway; on September 16th in Spain; on December 9th in Estonia and on December 15th in Argentina.