So what on earth was all that about? There will be small spoilers in this review but I wouldn’t worry as they may help to decode what is a bewildering narrative. Epic in all its proportions, Malick used possibly every cinematic trick in the book, fearlessly experimental yet clichéd in places, much too long, a huge soundtrack to keep those awake that really aren’t interesting in the big question; existence. I think it’s a film you will either love or hate but definitely make you think, whether it’s profound preoccupation or ‘what a load of dross’.
This film is an existential wandering through everything from the beginnings of the universe through to the love and demise of one too young to be lost and the main character, Jack, trying to makes sense of life and death. The Tree of Life comes with oceans of imagery, biblical references and good old-fashioned angst ridden deciphering of the meaning of life.
I watched this, strangely enough, unknowingly in early labour with my daughter, seems pretty apt looking back. It might also mean I go off track a bit attempting to analyse this one, I’m comforted by being in good company in this ‘going off on one’ with Malik himself who seems prone to wander from the path most taken at points in this work, most notably, the point where I thought I might have sat on the remote control and flicked over to ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ by accident. You do honestly sit wondering if you’re in some drug-induced daze where an Attenborough may pop up at any moment.
The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job and tussles of nature over grace. An angelic light (perhaps) offers a guiding hand as it cuts to idealistic scenes of nature and a beautiful home receiving bad news. The mother (Jessica Chastain) seems to symbolise grace and the father (Brad Pitt) nature while the story tells that of Jack, a meditation on his memories and issues within this theological/existential/spiritual dilemma. Sean Penn plays ‘Jack’, looking back on his childhood and the long ago premature death of his brother who in heat, he proclaims to miss every day.
We are thrown back to 1950s small town America and see through Jack’s younger eyes (Hunter McCracken) the dynamic of his family; a nurturing mother and brusque overly strict father. The mother sees goodness and joy everywhere and the father wants to prepare his sons for life’s cruelties amongst scenes of a childhood friend drowning and one being disfigured by burns, the beginnings of Jack’s rebellion smouldering into his adolescence. Confusingly shot scenes of this include an incident with a nightdress that ends up thrown into the river, water being the major symbol throughout, I suppose as the ultimate in beginnings. It is hard to know whether this film lies compatibly with creationism or Darwinism at times.
There are banal materialistic preoccupations touched upon but on the whole the film dances a meditation in questioning, a tranquil calm interposed with spiritual bafflement. It all ends in enlightenment, unconditional love and forgiveness. It could be a hard one to swallow for some and the biblical references can sit quietly confronting an agnostic mind throughout. Definitely one to watch again to get to grips with the spiritual pressings of Malick’s mind, it could bedevil or feel like prayer but to dismiss as merely pretension would be a pity.