There’s nary a film this year comparable to the grand scope of Terrence Malick’s signature magnum opus The Tree of Life. This is exactly the sort of film, as the Cannes Film Festival pundits had it, that sharply divides the house in equal parts – those who bemoan and roll their eyes to Malick’s pseudo-spiritual mooning, and those whose breaths have been taken away by The Tree of Life‘s sheer ambition, its earthy, eye-watering visuals and lyricism. Believe me, it took me a good few months to make my mind up which camp I should belong to, and I’m not exactly the fence-sitting kind.
If there’s any film that comes close to its scale, it’s Lars von Trier’s Melancholia; but whilst that sci-fi psychodrama contemplates about the end of the world, Malick’s beautiful beast of a movie meditates on the origins of the universe, the birth of the cosmos and subsequently, life itself. In the hands of a lesser, more commercialist director, this vaulting ambition would implode, no doubt. But such is Malick’s singular vision and unparalleled naturalistic style that what seemed to be too much for its own good turns out to be heartfelt, soulful and breathtakingly beautiful. For those who love Malick, and for those who have some shred of a heartstring left dangling inside their ribcage, this film is made for us and frankly, we don’t care about this film’s detractors (read: brainless and soulless).
Malick’s film works like a hymn, an incredibly delicate rhapsody dedicated to humanity, to the world around us, to nature, to grace. The much-publicised, much-ballyhooed middle part where Malick throws Western Narrative for Dummies out of the window makes for a bold attempt to challenge even the most impassioned cinephile, employing the most ambitious narrative leap in cinema history that could stand alongside the best of Kubrick . It’s this part of the film – when the story lurches from a present-day Chicago with Sean Penn staring depressively at metallic skyscrapers and all the way back to the Big Supernova that started it all – that made grouchy critics even grouchier and had audiences mouthing obligatory WTF’s. What exactly is Malick trying to insinuate? Why the birth of time? What’s with all the symbolisms? And why, of all species, did a dinosaur learn the first lesson of compassion?
The questions may be endless. But perhaps they’re futile, as Malick is never presumptuous enough to give Big Answers to the Big Questions. His film is a human drama set against the nature of our cosmos. He sets all of our universal experience, our bafflements, our consciousness and fears at the heart of this 1950’s suburban family in Texas and make it resonate and sing. He is able to prod our deepest feelings with a profound evocation of childhood, growing up, growing old and the nature of dying. It might first appear to be so stunningly complex, but Malick’s message is so stunningly simple – to make the most of every second we have in this world. Earthbound as Malick’s spiritualism, he avoids preachifying. Whoever claims that the film’s epilogue, a family reunion on a beach, symbolically stands for heaven, is obviously not looking and thinking hard enough. The Tree of Life does not pretend that there is God, nor it refutes a godless existence. To Malick, a god, be it as it may, is present in every living thing – in the sun, the wind, the trees, our mothers, father, brothers, friends. It’s magnificently articulated in Jessica Chastain’s nurturing mother, who narrates the film’s best line: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, life will pass you by.” We’re all part of this journey called life and we’re all in it together. So perhaps it’s good to start appreciating everything and everyone we have around us.
Nobody makes films like Malick does. The Tree of Life is a profoundly beautiful ode to childhood, nature, life and the universal human experience. Yes, it’s bloody ambitious for your average celluloid, but watch closely, listen carefully and open your heart and soul, it will make you contemplate about your existence.