The Tree of Life (2011)
The reclusive American filmmaker Terrence Malick's first two films in the 1970s (Badlands and Days of Heaven) were big festival and critics' favourites. He followed-up this success by not making a film or an interview for 20 years. In recent years he has returned to the business more productive than ever. He's still very much an enigma, though, and at first glance so is his latest film, The Tree of Life - an extremely ambitious project about spirituality, loss, childhood and family life in 1950s - backdropped against the birth of the universe, no less.
The Tree of Life's over-elaborate narrative style and prolonged shots of cosmos, nature and dinosaurs in the film's opening-part has made some viewers walk out after little more than fifteen minutes, whereas others have applauded the film as the most artistic since 2001. And indeed, there are similarities between what Kubrick did in that film and what Malick tries to do here. Malick's idea is to supersede the traditional film narrative, viewing the film medium more as a canvas than as writing paper. And if you share this perception, the more symbolic aspects of The Tree of Life will be rewarding, if not always relevant or well-formulated. There are few working filmmakers today shooting such beautiful footage as Malick is, and The Tree of Life may well be his most breathtaking to date, filled with iconic and expressive shots. The beauty and expressiveness isn't always coherent with or in reference to the film's more tangible parts, and when it isn't, a word like pretentious may easily come to mind.
Because Malick does offer a more traditional narrative as well, as we meet a young couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in the 1950s who fall in love, move into a nice middle-class Texas neighbourhood, and have three boys whom the try to raise the best they can. This is the film's best part, and although my synopsis seems trivial enough, it is also the most creative and artistically accomplished. Malick's delicious, untraditional narrative style portraying a remarkably picturesque and vivid tale of bygone childhood (with obvious autobiographical elements) utilizing little more than short, beautiful cuts of expressive actors - from alternative angles and with alternative camera-movement - is like going through a well-assembled photo album from the 1950s. It's brilliant and inventive filmmaking, and Malick is able to capture superb bits of acting in the process.
This middle part, which is the film's thematic core, contains a semi-mystery of sorts, and one of the most disappointing things about The Tree of Life, is that Malick builds his narrative up towards a conclusion. But instead of offering one, he closes his film with a montage of surrealistic scenes filled with spiritual and religious references in what is (presumably) an existential dissection seen in light of the lives he has just portrayed. The problem with this part isn't the ambition or necessarily the undoubted pompousness, but rather that Malick, I would argue, chooses the easy way out in concluding his work. Forget the lack of logic; the film deserves a more thought-provoking and emotionally viable conclusion than what this series of semi-religious allegories can offer. Not for the first time, Malick falls just short of proving himself as a complete artist, and yet again it is because of him lacking the final touch of brilliance as a storyteller. He's got everything else.