The Tree of Life, Terence Malick’s fifth film in 38 years, is the most delirious of reveries.
It’s a film that seems designed and destined to divide its audience between those willing to wreath themselves in the heightened, rose-tinted nostalgia vision of Malick’s own childhood, and those unwilling to indulge in such a flamboyant spectacle of naval gazing.
Set in the suburban heartland of the Texan city of Waco in the 1950s, Malick shows us an Eden of childhood. The sky is strewn with clouds and sun dapples through trees. Dusk stretches on as children play across borderless gardens in blissfully empty streets. Here we centre on porcelain-faced mother (Jessica Chastain) and her broad-shouldered husband (Brad Pitt) as they start a family of their own.
Beginning with a stylised sex sequence and ending with the father studying in his hands the miniature limbs of Jack, his first born child, Malick then takes us on a remarkable 30 minute journey from the beginnings of time. World’s collide, nebulous moons collapse, first life is formed, the power of the universe compels. We see Saturn’s rings, the sun’s rays, meteorites, dinosaurs, volcanos and gulping pools.
Much has been written about this sequence – Cannes swooned – but it seems to me a simple celebration of birth; to make a family is to form your world. And that’s the crux of this film. For all its audacity, its quasi poetic-ness, its intonation of higher things, The Tree of Life remains at core a hermetic family drama – of growing pains and sibling rivalry, of faith and fortitude, of the struggle to provide, of the obligation to protect and educate our children, of how life can be given and taken away.
It is a memoir saturated with idyll in which the statues of father – aggressive, frustrated, endlessly caring – and mother – gentle, feminine, to whom nature seems to gravitate – are totally dominant. The Tree of Life, in this sense, is a narcissistic eulogy; Malick staring into the pool of his own beginnings, and too scared to disturb its tranquil waters.
Malick, in other words, has assembled the world’s best technicians, the world’s best performers, millions of dollars of money, and spent 12 years peering up his backside. But, if his backside looks this good, it’s a shame he keeps himself so private.
Tree of Life is out now.