The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick – DVD – If ever a film to seek out at the cinema…this would be it. The DVD I had even kindly suggested that the film was intended to be heard loud…so I obediently clutched the remote and, to my brother’s annoyance, increased the volume with excitable abandon. It is, without reserve, a film of epic ambition. The film creates a vastly symphonic and poetic meditation on the existence of God and creation – as inspired and explored through a tragedy of loss that befalls an American suburban family. Managing to soar through images of galaxies, solar activity, crashing waves, volcanoes and a jaw-dropping (near psychedelic) array of natural wonders, Malick tackles the history of life. Not exactly mumble-core or understatement…this could be a visualized enactment of America’s elusive desire to find the American Novel – just with added scale. A feeling underlined by Nick James’ comment that ‘Malick looks increasingly like the unconscious father of modern American cinema’, looming large like the literary heavy hitters, enshrined in the American consciousness (a la Whitman, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner).
The film’s human pulse emanates from a fractured sub urban family, played with convincing brilliance by Brad Pitt (the father), Jessica Chastain (the mother) and most notably of the three boys: Hunter McCracken (whose older self is played by Sean Penn). After witnessing the death of a friend, the boy (played by McCracken) begins to unravel gradually developing into a brooding and awkward presence, teetering on the edge of violence. At its most disturbing this begins to echo in thoughts of killing his father and uncontrolled urges of violence (at one point resulting in the unfortunate demise of a frog strapped to a rocket… pretty funny to reference, but horrifically redolent of the casual fascination with power and death that can grip children). However, at no point does this narrative of family drama and growing up play out with conventional action, or scenes of extended dialogue. Instead these scenes (beautifully shot by DP Emmanuel Lubezki) act as sporadic grounding for the tidal ambition of the film’s spiritual and cosmic scope. At its best, the film achieves an awe inspiring and jaw dropping majesty (conducive to a naf and befuddled clutching for clichés) in which sweeping classical scores (from Bach, Mozart and Brahms to Preisner and Tavener) build into crescendos of, literally astronomical, beauty. Never before have I been near bleary eyed at the sight of astronomical photography… Patrick Moore would bloody love it. At times, the sheer grandeur and visual bombast of the film comes close to moments of overkill. Instead of the abstract poetry speaking, at times the questions of nature and grace are labored; the film occasionally had me wondering how David Attenborough’s familiar tones of reverence would sit comfortably alongside the visual sermon I was receiving. To again quote Nick James’ article in Sight & Sound: ‘Even at it’s most clichéd and pious, the film is at the very least the most astonishing family-snapshot-screensaver you will ever see.’ Such moments were only ever slight and fleeting though, and to be fair, a near inevitable resonance when bravely confronting such philosophical and visual enormity. It is that bravery of vision which makes the film so impressively triumphant – to have the conviction to make a film of such magnitude…where shots of canyons, galaxies and dinosaurs glide into the surreal imaginings of memory, faith and family is…for want of a better word: inspiring. So, whether or not you feel at points like you might have slipped into a particularly melodramatic episode of Planet Earth, the masterful achievement of this film cannot be denied…and thankfully, in winning the Palme D’Or was rightfully recognized. At the end of the film, I felt an excitement for the next opportunity to watch it again…so many amazing images to revisit. Whether it was the eerie and beautiful twirling in the air of Jessica Chastain’s levitating body (recalling, with a less severely haunting tone, that memorable scene in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror), the dazzling fiery solar ripples, or even Brad Pitt’s gurning concentration as he plays a church organ, there is a wealth of moments to choose from. 10/10