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The Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

TERRENCE Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life is a challenging film that explores everything from complex family relationships to the meaning of life and our place in the universe.

At its heart lies a small, intimate and – it has been argued – semi-autobiographical tale of a boy’s relationship with his father. Yet Malick broadens the film’s sweep to include the creation of the universe and life on Earth, stretching as far back as the dinosaurs and beyond.

Just how successful the ensuing film is remains a valid question for weeks after you’ve seen it, yet the subsequent ‘experience’ succeeds in doing what too few films do nowadays in that it genuinely makes you think… putting what you see on-screen into context with your own life, mortality and questions of faith and family.

For sure, there is an element of the pretentious about it, and Malick’s lengthy sequences involving the dawning of time (and those dinosaurs) feel like they require a David Attenborough voice-over to accompany them. It can be argued, too, that such sequences detract from the human drama that unfolds.

But Malick has never been one to opt for straight-forward narratives, assembling each film as more of a visual poem or an art installation than a linear or conventional experience.

The result is, by turns, beautiful and baffling, absorbing and frustrating, imaginative and thought-provoking.

At the centre of proceedings is Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), an architect who uses the anniversary of his brother’s death to reflect on his upbringing in 1950s Texas and, in particular, his turbulent relationship with his disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) and loving mother (Jessica Chastain).

In so doing, though, he also ponders his place in the universe, allowing Malick to juxtapose family snapshots with the creation of life as well as what may lie beyond death.

Just how much of what unfolds is taken from the director’s own life is open to debate, given that Malick was known to have a strict father and that his own brother died (possibly at his own hand).

More important, though, is how the film invests you emotionally as an individual… and while the family itself may lie just out of reach, there is still plenty to be taken away from it.

Malick’s observations are often astutely realised – from a father’s need to protect his sons, to a child’s need to be taken seriously – and he draws some mesmerising performances.

Pitt, in particular, stands out as the tormented disciplinarian, while the three unknown boys who play his sons are amazing: conveying so much while saying very little and often displaying a maturity beyond their years.

There’s a natural element to the performances that make them utterly absorbing and, if anything, the film ought to have rewarded their hard work a little more with a few more scripted sequences.

It might have been more involving to know more about them in a conventional way, as opposed to being taken on Malick’s flights of fancy.

That said, even those flights of fancy have a beguiling quality for the most part, wrapping viewers in lush cinematography backed by a classical score.

If these come at the expense of some performances (Penn’s especially) or an ending that certainly veers towards the pretentious without entirely satisfying after almost two and a half hours, then he can just about be forgiven.

For The Tree of Life is a one-of-a-kind experience that deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’ll polarise viewers, for sure, and is by no means Malick’s best (perhaps as a result of being too personal), but it is a richly fascinating slice of movie-making from one of cinema’s great recluses. Besides, you didn’t expect to have it easy, did you?

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 139mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: October 31, 2011