The fifth film from Terrence Malick melds theology, philosophy and human experience in the unforgettable The Tree of Life.
Five films in 40 years may not seem like much of a legacy to some, but in the case of Malick it represents a filmmaker of the rarest kind: patient, mysterious, not driven by financial gain and masterly.
The Tree of Life marks Malick at his most ambitious, epic, and immensely personal. Plot wise it deals with Jack (Sean Penn), an architect whose wondering existence forces him to reflect on his time as a youth in Waco, Texas, where he was raised by his disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) and forgiving mother (Jessica Chastain), and lived with his three brothers, the death of one which haunts them all.
A major inspiration is The Book of Job, a widely read and admired section of the Bible where an emotionally and spiritually wounded man questions God’s authority and purpose. While the Coen Brothers dealt with the same source material in a much more straight forward and comical approach in last year’s A Serious Man, straight forward in not a part of Malick’s filmmaking philosophy and here he goes for broke utilising current technologies to create a film where the beginning of creation, through to the evolutionary process (with dinosaurs making an appearance), leading up to the forging of this seemingly simple family is chronicled.
As a result, The Tree of Life becomes the closest to pure theology on film, hypnotic in its tapestry of past, present, future, space, time and emotion, and filled with a visual majesty with extraordinary imagery flickering across the screen.
Through the character of Jack (played the majority of the time by newcomer Hunter McCracken), Malick taps into those influences that wrestle within us. In Jack’s case there is the father who represents the survival of the fittest attitude of nature, Brad Pitt very effective as the loving yet temperamental father. Then there is the mother who represents the divinity and beauty of grace, Jessica Chastain simply angelic in her first of several high profile roles this year.
Thrown into the mix is shame, guilt, love, hate and ultimately the pursuit of knowledge through the questioning of existence and our place within it all.
At times it can be too much to handle. Movies don’t field such heavy issues and emotions in this way. There is a rhythm to The Tree of Life that viewers will need to adjust their senses to, with the slight ticking of a clock in the background setting the pace.
Exactly how much of Tree of Life is autobiographical no one knows. Malick is such a notoriously shy man, that confirmation might never be given. What is certain is that Malick has captured grace, beauty, anger and longing in a way seldom – if ever – has been done before. Give yourself unto The Tree of Life and a cinematic experience unlike no other will be had.