Terrence Malick is a director who knows how to take his time. Including his directorial debut, Badlands (1973), he has made a total of five feature films, including his latest, Tree of Life.
Tree of Life is a film which knows how to take its time. It cuts between Sean Penn in the present day, his memories of childhood in the 1950s, and the very origin of life itself millions of years ago. Whatever accusations you may throw at Tree of Life, lack of ambition is certainly not one of them.
The patchwork nature of the film, which is beautifully epitomised by the film’s poster, make for a strangely ‘inward’ viewing experience. What do I mean by this?
Many films, especially blockbusters like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean, throw so much at us in terms of plot, characters and twists we are given very little time to reflect on what we have just seen. This makes them much like a roller coaster experience, as we are thrown left, right, and upside down by the intended thrills of the film.
This makes watching the film a very ‘external’ or reactive viewing experience, in that we are constantly responding to the wealth events on the screen.
Tree of Life does precisely the opposite. When we are shown the beautiful images of volcanoes, stars or landscape, we can’t help but be reflective, as opposed to reactive. There is so little going on in terms of plot, characters and twists at these points, we must consider our own individual thoughts on the origin of life, the nature of suffering, and the impact of our past experiences and memories on our current being.
Of course the reflective nature of such a film may not be to everyone’s tastes. The cinema is often seen as a place of escapism, a place to be thrilled by another story, taken to a new world, a place to forget everything else that is happening. Tree of Life will not allow you to do that. Or at the very least it didn’t allow me to do that.
Instead it’s a film which invites you to confront your own memories, your own sufferings, your own philosophies on life, death, parenting, love and guilt. Whatever the opposite of escapism is, Tree of Life is it.
Aside from the images and music which make up much of the first half of the film, the second half does have a more traditional narrative form. It concerns the relationship between a father (Brad Pitt), and his sons.
Through this section of the film we see how complex and messy the nature of self can be. We see a father with the best of intentions for his sons, unable to communicate fully his love for them. We see a son who finally gets the freedom he craves when his father leaves on a business trip, and the guilt that comes from abusing that freedom.
Although Tree of Life is a film which lacks clarity and a firm direction, it is a film very purposeful in its decision to do so. It is a bold, uncompromising, intelligent film which demands repeat viewings, and a film which will be discussed and debated well after it has left the cinema.