Review: Tree of Life

The latest from one of cinema's most elusive and enigmatic figures is a must see film that you shouldn't get your hopes up for. You've got to see it, but be prepared for an intense dose of wonderment and frustration.

Having managed to operate a four-decade-long career in showbusiness on just that one publicity photograph, Terrence Malick ranks up there with Pynchon and Salinger in the reclusive genius stakes. And you'd need to have cloaked yourself in an elusive, never-give-interviews, only-make-five-movies-in-38 years shroud of genius to pull a stunt like Tree of Life.

Previously Malick has made films that looked like they came from the head of a dreamy schoolchild who was always getting distracted in class. What we see as a profound spiritual expression of the universal life force that courses equally through all organic matter in the universe, may just be the product of short attention span.

Having failed to get properly through a whole story since his debut Badlands, he gives up here and offers up a drifting, freeform reverie on growing up in 1950's Waco Texas, which passes before your eyes like a string of memories. Indeed it could almost be a visualisation of Kevin Spacey's moment-before-you-die monologue at the end of American Beauty, the one about how 'it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time.'

Pitt is particularly good as the distant, bitter, loving father matched up against Jack (Hunter McCracken), the increasingly defiant eldest child. Early on Malick casually throws in a sequence about the creation of the universe and the start of life on earth. It is staggeringly beautiful.

Douglas Turnbull, the visual effects master behind Blade Runner Close Encounters and Silent Running, was drafted in to help and we are reminded what special effects really mean.

So how does this sequence relate to growing up in the 1950s? Well, if at all, it is in the most banal and obvious way possible – to give it perspective. Malick often strikes me as a Chancey Gardiner figure, the simpleton played by Peter Sellers in Being There who is mistaken for a genius in Washington political circles where his gardening tips are taken as gnomic pearls of wisdom.

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Tree of Life is as beautiful and precious as you'd expect of a Malick film, but also as sappy and dippy hippy as you'd expect of a film called The Tree of Life. It is like Kumbaya rearranged by Bach.


Director: Terence Malick

With: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Fiona Shaw.

Length: 139 mins