Winning the grand prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival for The Tree of Life was presumably very pleasing for Terrence Malick, the famously reclusive director of The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven. But don’t expect to hear much from him. This man of few words and fewer films — he has made just five features in 38 years — didn’t even attend the festival.
Ah, but what about the old idea of letting the film speak for itself? As it turns out, Tree is an epic poem that speaks volumes, but often in riddles. Suffused with spirituality but questioning of religion, it has a literally cosmic reach that spans hundreds of millions of years. It’s one of those rare films that shuts some people up as they exit the theatre, while others say, “I’m definitely going to be thinking about this one for awhile.” Even some critics who champion the film are hesitant to say what it’s really about. Except to add that it is unique and really, really amazing.
The core of the film focuses on a not-quite-functional 1950s family in small town Texas whose patriarch, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), has a lovely wife and three rambunctious boys. This man’s man has a job in a big mill, although we also see him fuming with lawyers about some patents he has devised. He also frets about how much money some of his neighbours have, and that they inherited it rather than earned it. This stern and eventually bitter father has a complicated relationship with his sons, especially the eldest, and bullies them often (in between hugs and other gestures of affection). The death of one son causes fractures within the family to become more apparent, and there are occasional flash forwards to show that one son has grown up to become an architect and, as far as we can tell, an unhappy man.
This ordinary human tale is broken up into crystalline mosaic bits and embedded into a much larger cinematic edifice that is symphonic in structure. Malick’s cosmic narrative spans millions of years as it seeks patterns and parallels in galactic formations and cellular activity, in erupting volcanoes and stars going supernova.
We also hear the characters’ thoughts as they question the deepest purpose of their troubled lives.
I have never been a huge Malick fan, mostly because his impulse towards visual poetry sometimes interfered with, rather than abetted the story he was telling. But here the poetry is the message: the characters are sketched in but somehow fully realized, while the amazingly lyrical cinematography is meditative, inspirational, and often profound. And the soundtrack, too, further lifts the film up into a high spiritual realm.
In lesser hands this could have been unbearably precious hogwash. But Malick, bless his heart, never puts a foot wrong. M
Opens Friday at the Odeon