The question, “Is The Tree Of Life any good?” is possibly the most complex question I’ve ever been asked (by myself) in this blog. It has no easy answer; at the very least, it has two entirely different ones. And even those bifurcate into a serious fractal-like complexity given half a chance.
It gets a totally schizoid reaction on movie review sites. Some absolutely love it; but many people end up calling it “unbelievably terrible”, “awful”, “a waste of time” and “badly made.” Well, the latter accusation of being “badly made” is parentally absurd: Terence Malick is categorically not a bad filmmaker. It’s an incredibly well made and conceived film, drawing on some of the most artistic and ambitious experimental techniques to be found in the annals of cinema, which are here used to tell a familiar yet mythic story via a unique structure that’s more like an artist producing an impressionistic painting than a movie director making a modern big-budget film.
On the other hand, I entirely understand why so many people hate and loathe this film with a passion. It is as far removed from modern day cinema fare (as defined by the standard multiplex roster of superhero franchises and reboots) as it’s possible to be. It throws out all cinematic grammar that one may reasonably expect, has no real story or narrative, very little coherent dialogue, and largely consists of beautifully shot but often context-free images that make it a delight to look at but at the same time uncompromisingly slow and wilfully difficult for a modern audience to access.
I find myself lost somewhere in the seas between the twin continents of admiration and exasperation, cut adrift from the isle of enjoyment that is surely somewhere to be found out there. I admired the film’s attempts to tell the story of life – of life in the cosmos and on earth, and then to focus down onto just one human life in particular as an exemplar – and I’ve never seen anything of the like before. But at the same time its wilful opaqueness and powerfully smug sense of arty self-satisfaction is a high obstacle for anyone watching. In particular, the pseudo-meaningful homilies whispered pretentiously over the soundtrack at seemingly-random moments reek of self-indulgence and had my eyes rolling – especially when it comes to the final mercifully brief ‘afterlife’ sequence, the sort of American New Age religiosity often found in cinema that makes my teeth ache and is the very sort of thing I most loath – as those who have read my review of Touch will probably have detected.
And yet somewhat to my surprise I found I did take to this film more than I expected to. It has something of the feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of ambition and pace, albeit without any narrative elements such as the murderous mainframe that makes Kubrick’s science fiction artistic masterpiece acceptable and accessible to the mainstream audience after all. At its purest level, 2001 seeks to put mankind’s evolution into the context of the development of the broader universe, and Tree of Life seeks to do something analogous by putting one life into the context of the cosmos: we see the birth of the universe and the creation of the earth, the planting of a sapling that grows into tall tree, the start of life at microbe level that evolves to become human beings. Along the way, one scene where a dinosaur looks down on a weaker, injured creature and appears to almost feel empathy for it is echoed in a later scene where young Jack meets his baby brother for the same time and struggles to understand what this new entity actually is.
Despite the lack of narrative, we come to know the character of Jack (played as a youth by remarkable new find Hunter McCracken, and in adulthood by Sean Penn) in a profoundly deep way as we see him grow up in 50s and 60s middle America with parents Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. At first everything is bright and wonderful, the scenes full of sparkling sunlight and gorgeous images. But later the scenes lose their lustre, the colours fade, and the once-dream house and neighbourhood become ramshackle and dirty. It’s a powerful evocation of how our perceptions change as we grow up, how perfect parents become flawed human beings: it’s the story of us all as we grow up, so that even though this is a self-conscious candidate for the Great American Movie it also resonates with people much further afield.
So to come back to “Is The Tree Of Life any good?” the answer is: yes it is, in just the same way that an art exhibition at the Tate is always good and worthwhile, and will reward the thoughtful visitor open to a new experience. But that’s no guarantee that you’ll like the actual work on display. I always think that sort of uncertainty and risk of failure is a hallmark of true art, something that distinguishes it from other work expressively and remorselessly designed to appeal to the biggest mainstream audience possible – which is not art but is rather show business.
The Tree of Life is certainly not trying to be that. Whether it succeeds in what it is trying to do is very much in the eye of the beholder.