Like the chubby girl who ‘doesn’t even go here’ in Mean Girls, as I approached the local multiplex to see notoriously challenging auteur Terence Malick’s divisive Palme d’Or winner, I had a lot of feelings. Chief of which was a decidedly unprofessional last-minute urge to duck into the screen next door and rewatch Deathly Hallows Part 2 -an urge apparently shared by the two people who walked out during the first hour of The Tree of Life, although that was a mild reaction compared to the pockets of rebellious critics who loudly booed the film at its screening in Cannes. Of course, the self-appointed elite vocally professing their disdain for anything that becomes popular enough to win a prize is a long-established tradition at the festival, but nonetheless I was uncertain: what exactly was I about to see? Just what had Malick put on the screen that so aroused the ire of many well-respected critics, including the likes of Mark Kermode, no less?
The answer is as complicated as the reclusive Malick himself. Most reviews have comfortably summarised the plot as the story of a boy (Hunter McCracken) and his family in 1950s Texas, but this is a deceptively straightforward synopsis bearing little relation to what the audience actually sees unfold. The Tree of Life has no plot, in the traditional sense. All we see are disconnected, non-chronological and mostly wordless snippets of a boy’s life, with no attempt made to weave them into anything resembling a narrative arc. The only sequence lasting longer than a few minutes is an audacious and astonishing half-hour sequence depicting the formation of Earth and the beginnings of life. Orchestral blasts and operatic crescendoes score the entrancing images of volcanoes, rivers and, of course, trees, as the story of Jack’s childhood is suddenly thrown into a cosmic context, his prosaic memories suddenly put on hold to explore the origins of God and the universe.
How exactly you feel about this prolonged and unexplained digression might well determine how you respond to the film as a whole. For some, it clearly proved a dealbreaker, as evidenced by the fact that both of my screening’s walkouts occured during this period, but if you are able to get past the initial feeling of dislocation, you could find that it holds the key to understanding the whole film. Near the end of the sequence, we see a wounded dinosaur lying in a riverbed, unable to move. A larger, stronger dinosaur approaches and comtemplates the injured animal, going so far as to place a foot on its head, before finally slinking away. At the beginning of the film Jack’s mother, a devout Christian, opines that there is ‘the way of nature and the way of grace’ in life. This act of prehistoric mercy seems to suggest that these paths may not be incompatible as they first appear, a sign of hope for Jack, who is torn between the conflicting personalities of his parents. His father (Brad Pitt) is a loving but volatile figure in the boys’ lives, a control freak who insists on being addressed as ‘sir’ and for whom any act of minor disobedience is a cause for explosive anger. However, we come to understand that he behaves this way out of misplaced love, in the belief that it will make his sons strong. A failed musician, he believes the only way they will achieve the dreams he missed out on is to ensure they are tough and disciplined, not realising that his behaviour is having a deep impact on the fragile Jack and his tragically-fated younger brother, whose suicide at the age of 19 opens the film. The children’s mother (Jessica Chastain), on the other hand, is almost too good to be true, a product of childish adulation which only rarely slips to reveal the human beneath. Ethereal and saintlike, she hovers over Jack’s memories – a revered but ineffectual guardian, unable to protect him from his father’s harshness. The whole cast is wonderful, the three brothers in particular played with seamless naturalism by the youngsters, who don’t even appear to be acting; rather, they are just being kids.
Perhaps it is best not to think of this as a film in the traditional sense. Malick uses the screen as a canvas, and each fleeting flashback is like a dab of a paintbrush – individually insignificant, but contributing to a grand and epic portrait which is much more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes what we see is confusing, simply because when it comes to explaining his intentions Malick refuses to lend his audience a hand – you get the impression he wouldn’t care if the movie was playing to the Albert Hall or in a shoebox. Like its spiritual predecessor, Tartovsky’s smirkingly impenetrable Mirror, you just have to trust that the bigger picture will be sufficient to outweigh the minor puzzles.
The Tree of Life ‘s wilfully abstract style is impossible to ignore, certainly, but the important question is: does it work? For the most part, yes. That said, the incessant stream-of-consciousness voiceover and fussy camerawork are occasionally reminiscent of a fancy perfume advert, and at times I couldn’t quite get this Fry and Laurie sketch out of my mind. Indeed, there were moments where I felt like it was almost a parody of an arty film and the joke was on me for trying to appreciate it. This is a minor gripe, though, which probably reflects more on me than on Malick, whose aching sincerity barely seems to allow for the possibility of humour, nevermind outright self-parody. For today’s pampered audience, used to the narrative spoon-feeding of colour-by-numbers blockbusters, the idea of having to meet a filmmaker halfway to appreciate his vision is a bitter pill to swallow. The Tree of Life almost requires the viewer to make their own contributions – only by digging around in your own stockpile of childhood memories can you get on right level to see the world through Jack’s eyes. So, if you decide to see this film – and you should, if possible – remember that a search for a concrete message will probably prove unsatisfying, because every viewer will experience The Tree of Life differently, for better or worse. Just be ready to let Malick’s beautiful compositions wash over you and see what happens.