The Talk: The Tree of Life
Updated: Nov 8, 2018
Terrence Malick's Tree of Life has received what seems like an endless number of mixed reviews and a less than friendly reception at Cannes because of its obvious religious leanings, but we chose to see it as something other than that because it is simply put a beautiful film. It is a visually magnificent, toweringly ambitious work – brilliantly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, passionately felt, and deeply serious in its address to the audience.
This fifth feature in Terrence Malick’s eccentric four-decade career is about the inner crisis of a tormented man in his middle years, played by Sean Penn, and the terrible unchangeability of the past. As he forces himself to consider his own negligible place in the universe, the film gestures at the unimaginable reaches of geological and stellar time, depicting nothing less than the origins of the cosmos and man himself in a colossal Kubrickian symphony of images. It's stunning.
He is mentally carried back in time to his boyhood in 1950s west Texas, where he and his brothers were dominated by an overbearing father, superbly played by Brad Pitt – a ferocious disciplinarian who abandoned his early vocation for music to become a failed businessman.
Their mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is a gentle, religious soul who asks her sons to follow the way of divine grace, rather than be content to thrive as natural beings. Their father wants them merely to be strong. When one of the brothers dies at the age of 19 on military service, it creates a wound that promises never to heal. Penn's character comes to realise that time, so far from soothing the agonies of our past, may simply preserve and even intensify them as we come to confront our own mortality.
The story is shaped in an unconventional way, not as a narrative with normal character arcs and dramatic tension but more like a symphony with several movements -- each expressive of its own natural phenomena and moods. Gigantic scenes from the secret life of the cosmos endow these family dramas with something alienated, bewildering – a sense of a terrifying perspective in which their traumas are vanishingly tiny and yet have spiritual magnitude. They are a vivid part of an unending universal process in which man is destroyed, renewed, destroyed, renewed again – man, who mysteriously emerged from a natural landscape that exists independently of humanity and human consciousness. That not a single image here seems fake or artificial can only be the ultimate praise for the work of senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and his team.
It is hardly a movie for the masses and some might fail to grasp the connection between the depiction of the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family. But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film.
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