TREE OF LIFE Review: Few Movies Are So Ambitious (and so frustrating)

It’s slow and cold, but it rewards patience with thoughtful depictions of bygone American life and its place in the grand scheme of nature. Any self-respecting cinephile should make time for it.

rating: 4

Cine-lyricism is yet to have its blockbuster moment; it€™s a hidden genre; the purview of artists and academics. Once, when film was young, intellectuals, like Virginia Woolf, dreamt of the photochemical frame as a new type of canvas upon which a unique and intellectual art form, fresh for the 20th century, would evolve. She thought it should express itself differently, a contrast to the literary narrative; it could be a medium that appealed directly to the intellect, providing a different sort of challenge to the established arts. Woolf, as you might imagine, was subsequently horrified when cinema, in a cynical grab for mass audiences, instead looked to the novel for inspiration. But this, Woolf, noted, was not story telling worthy of the name; it was superficial, incomplete; the cinema, she said, must not be a parasite €“ it must be left to its own devices. Woolf, I believe, and yes I€™m happy to speak for her on this matter, would have liked Terrence Malick€™s Tree of Life for all the reasons you won€™t. It may still be parasitic, drawing inspiration from the associations induced by the play of ideas and feeling in poetry and music, but it eschews linearism and plot structure in a bid to transmit those ideas using image and emotion alone. Malick seizes control of the cinematic apparatus and recalibrates it in hope of reaching beyond the crudities of the three act structure and the dialogue driven picture; his aim is to transcend and appeal directly to the imagination and heart of his audience. It€™s a quiet film, in as much as its contemplative tone remains uncompromised by the burden of plot; it€™s a muted trawl through life, death and our position in relation to grand, elemental forces beyond the scope of individual experience; it€™s about our position in the universe, both central and insignificant. It€™s an exclusively cinematic experience. Criticism, inevitably, will centre on its esotericism and whether, in embedding meaning in contrasting theatres of universal beauty and 50s bible belt America, Malick has made something too exclusive; a film with themes that encompass a mass audience; religious belief, the metaphysical, science and philosophy; but rejects that audience for a hallowed constituency of beard strokers and metrosexuals. Style employed to open up the cinematic experience, as ever, serves to do the opposite. Both aspects of the film, the micro and macro, are well realised. Scenes of planetary adolescence and catastrophe, notably a shot of an asteroid hitting the Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs, are breath taking. Alexandre Desplat, perhaps inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, scores with a sense of grandeur in such moments, indeed we haven€™t seen such a magisterial fusion of space and orchestra since Kubrick€™s film. The structuring human story (or is the universe shaping it?) is low key but poignant. Brad Pitt gives a strong, naturalistic performance as the conflicted Patriarch of a typical blue collar family. The brood, as scene from the perspective of young Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn but sensitively by Hunter McCracken in these scenes, is a test bed for the film€™s overarching themes €“ nature€™s cycle, birth and death, though not necessarily in that order, our attempts to make sense of existence and our place in the world through myth coupled with our struggle to live by our values and what part of them are human invention (Malick shows a Dinosaur choosing not to kill a wounded animal, as a signal that compassion pre-dates ethics). It isn€™t clear, on first viewing, that Malick successfully marries the human with the universal, and some may struggle to see past the laconic nature of the drama to the philosophical asides beneath. It is, I contend, worth the effort however. Tree of Life won€™t endear itself to everyone. It€™s slow and cold, but it rewards patience with thoughtful depictions of bygone American life and its place in the grand scheme of nature. Few movies are so ambitious (and so frustrating). The manner in which it defamiliarizes the everyday however, comes close to fulfilling the Woolfian dream of cinema exploring ideas in its own language. For that reason alone, any self-respecting cinephile should make time for it. Tree of Life is released in the U.K. on Friday. You can read an additional WhatCulture! review from Cannes.

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