Reviewing a ‘film’ such as The Tree of Life is not without its difficulties. Chief among said difficulties is that whilst this does indeed share the trait of being a collection of moving pictures and sounds combined together and then projected onto a large white canvas, this is no film in the traditional sense of the word.
Rather, in true Terrence Malick style, this is a visual poem – a musing on faith, life, death, the nature of memory, the universe and the inter-connectivity of everything. There is a story, but it’s a mere conduit to the poetry. Boiled down to its most basic level, it’s about a man named Jack, who - after many, many years - finally comes to terms with the death of his brother.
There are performances contained herein, and they are, for the most part, good. The child actors in particular go completely against the norm to give a frighteningly accurate portrayal of pre-pubescent rebellion, all mumbles and passive-aggressive barks. Brad Pitt gives his most understated performance to date as Jack’s father - all pent up, like a spring that is ready to snap at any moment, and snap it does.
In truth, though, this is a piece where dialogue and performance are practically inconsequential. They simply meld into and accentuate the visual poetry on display – and what a work of visual art this is. Suns are born and die, microbes flitter and dance across the screen, sunlight plays through forests that tower overhead. It’s a sensual experience, full of the little curiosities of nature that we usually take for granted - and you can almost feel them: the roughness of stone, the silky veneer of a butterfly’s wings, the heat of the sun on your face, the odd sensation of wet grass stuck to your bare feet. And to go into the other-worldly beauty of Jessica Chastain – playing either an angel or Jack’s mother, it’s tricky to tell – in this piece would require a separate, 700-word essay just to do even a vague amount of justice to.
But what’s perhaps most astonishing about this cinepoem (yes, that is an actual thing) is that it rhymes, and the effect that this has on you, the filmgoer, if you allow it. It’s so difficult to describe this in words alone, but there’re visual motifs that echo throughout the piece, allowing it to lull you into an almost meditative state. Your breathing will slow, you’ll be able to hear your heart beating slowly but regularly, and the editing seems almost designed to synchronise with this state.
If there is a failing of the movie, it’s that about three-quarters of the way through there is a sudden attempt to shoehorn in forty minutes or so of vaguely coherent narrative. There is an argument that’s in favour of this – given the transient nature of memory; it’s essentially Jack’s thoughts finally cohering into something tangible, instead of vague flashes of emotional imagery. But from a structural point of view, it’s vaguely confusing, and it takes a little effort to adjust back from the zen-like trance that the first part of the movie will almost certainly put you into.
It’s also about twenty minutes too long, but it’s difficult to point at any particular part and say ‘that needs to go’, although the slightly bizarre sequence involving dinosaurs is probably a candidate, and there’s probably quite a bit that can be trimmed from the coming-of-age film that got stuffed into the final hour. And yes, it is about as pretentious as cinema can possibly get without actually starting to smoke a gauloise.
At the end of it, though, I’m not going to give this a star rating. If I were going to, it would be a five, simply because you should go see it, to make of it what you will. You might hate it, you might love it, it might bring you to tears or you might be entirely indifferent. It is one of those magical movies that you have to make work for yourself. If it hasn't become clear to you yet: I enjoyed myself – but it’s not entertaining in the traditional sense of cinema. It is, however, thought-provoking, heart-wrenchingly beautiful and truly fascinating. It works on about eight different levels, and all of them are intriguing and well thought out. Please see it – it’s an experience quite like any other so far this year.