Cannes (Official Selection) – Premiering at the busiest press screening at Cannes, expectations were at fever pitch for the latest film from Terrence Malick. Emma Rowley takes a look at a film that situates the universal within the autobiographical.
Does such a thing as the perfect film exist? One thing's for certain: there's no such thing as the perfect film critic. When we go into the cinema, we bring – along with our notepads and press guides, our laptops and pens – our prejudices and expectations.
In the case of a film like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, much of an individual's response to it will depend on whether or not he or she feels an answering chord of recognition to what's onscreen. The magic doesn't just happen up there: it depends on the chemistry between the work and our preconceptions.
The above is a way into saying: if you're reading this review to find out whether or not you should spend your hard-earned cash on a ticket to see this film, you might as well flip a coin. Ordinarily in a review, we try to go beyond our likes and dislikes to analyse the quality of the filmmaking. The story, the direction, the actors, the cinematography and more all factor in to the verdict. But what if the experience of watching a film makes some of that seem irrelevant, and some merely boring box-ticking?
So, let's lay some cards on the table. I'm not a rabid Malick fan. Badlands and The Thin Red Line are wonderful films but I'm haven't seen everything Malick has made. I didn't follow the seemingly endless production history and date-changing with any interest. The hoopla surrounding the screening was mildly annoying. Going in to see the film, I was expecting – if I was expecting anything at all – that it wouldn't chime with me. That I might have to put some work in to get something out of it. Perhaps my lack of expectation played into my response. Perhaps, given the weirdly visceral reactions to the film (it was booed before it had even finished in our press screening and some online reviews since have been teeth-baringly aggressive), what was most important was that I didn't feel Malick owed anything to me, or to cinematic history. I was just going to see a film.
And I liked it a hell of a lot.
A lot of what follows as I try to describe the narrative is somewhat subjective; there's a fair bit of interpretation involved.
Sean Penn's Jack, now a middle-aged architect, is attempting to lay his past to rest, specifically what he considers the unbreachable divide between his mother's and father's philosophies of life. We don't find out the catalyst for this sudden period of introspection. Is it the breakdown of his marriage? A mid-life crisis? His father's death?
The early years of his parents' marriage and his childhood years growing up in 1950s' Texas are told in a series of impressionistic vignettes that move from the idyllic (the images suffused with a rich, nostalgic glow) to a period of crisis as he reaches adolescence. Initially, he sees the world entirely as his mother does (Jessica Chastain), a woman for whom life is simply about love, and faith that goodness will bring a return of goodness from the world. Her family is the centre of her universe, she is the heart of her family, and she guides her children gently through their first experiences. But as Jack ages, his father (Brad Pitt) becomes the central figure in his life. His father grows increasingly bitter and frustrated with the outcomes of his life choices, his unhappiness calcifying into an overpowering need to toughen up his sons and ensure they don't repeat his mistakes.
As he begins to explore his own feelings of aggression towards the world, Jack comes to feel that he has more in common with his father than his mother. When his beloved younger brother dies in his later teens (in unexplained circumstances), his mother's worldview comes to seem naïve and inadequate. It is only years later, once he has achieved success of his own, that he is ready to open himself up again to her self-described way of grace.
Much of this is deeply autobiogrphical. Malick grew up in Waco, Texas as the eldest of three brothers; like the father in the film, his own father worked in the petroleum industry. A more important parallel is that, like Jack's younger brother in the film, Malick's own brother died suddenly as a young man. The Tree of Life is dedicated to him.
As a counterpoint to this personal search for lost time, Malick makes an audacious leap to the universal, charting in gorgeously photographed detail (after consultation with scientists in various fields) the beginnings of life on earth and its evolution. It's a moving technique, implying that in order to make sense of the pain of death, we must step back and step back until the whole universe is included in the story. An amniotic shape appears. A galaxy. Fiery rivers run and cool. Microbes appear. Jellyfish. Fish. Dinosaurs. A meteor hits the earth, making way for humans. Jack wanders through icy fields. The film is full of such startling imagery: Jack's mother swooping through the air, in flight; again, lying in a glass coffin in the woods; a child swimming free of his underwater bedroom; a plesiosaur basking on a beach; roiling masses of fire. Production designer Jack Fisk (a regular Malick collaborator who's also worked with David Lynch on The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive) likely played a key part in the creation of this epic vision.
The young Jack is played with impressive naturalism by debut performer Hunter McCracken. As the mother, Jessica Chastain shines, almost literally, being one of those ethereal redheads the camera loves so much, like Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. Instead of their other-worldly remoteness, however, she exudes a warmth that is vital to the film. Conversely, Pitt delivers a tightly-wound performance as the closed-off father.
At the opening of the film, Malick's purpose seems almost pompously Miltonic – justifying the ways of God to man while galaxies spin to the Andre Desplat-arranged operatic score. But in the end, his vision is of a human-centric universe to which compassion brings meaning and order.
Rating on a scale of 5 ways in which rating this film seems daft: 4
Release date: USA: May 27; UK: TBC
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Screenplay by: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Fiona Shaw, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
Rating: UK = TBC; US = PG-13
Running time: 138 mins