Winner of this year’s prestigious Palme d’or, the fifth film by reclusive auteur Terrence Malick and with an A list star cast of Brad Pitt & Sean Penn, The Tree of Life arrives on UK shores with a groundswell of hyperbole and endless superlatives. It has been declared a masterpiece. Unless you live in a self contained reality with little if any contact with the media then your position as a cinema spectator may actually manifest some surprising critical distance. However, this being ultimately a Hollywood film featuring an A list cast and a director who many enjoy comparing with Kubrick, The Tree of Life is a film that cannot live up to the hype or grand expectations that have been built up around it. It has been problematic maintaining critical distance before Malick’s film arrived and he seems to keep cinephiles interested largely because of his estrangement from the media. Such a low public profile and relative seclusion bears comparisons with Kubrick but unfortunately this is the first Terrence Malick to radically polarize audiences in such an ideologically contentious way. The Tree of Life also feels like the film which to date is the most personal but in my opinion that by doing this Malick actually jeopardizes his entire approach. With relatively little critical distance which I guess he doesn’t want to maintain, the film locates itself firmly inside the theological mindset of Malick the religious philosopher, professor and student. I have great admiration for Malick’s films except this one. Friends and colleagues I have spoken to have effectively denounced the film as pretentious. However, one could argue that to a large extent pretentiousness is a label often associated with a lot of Hollywood cinema. Yet it is a characteristic that has become part of the mindset of today’s cinema audiences. Pretentiousness is no longer a stigma in many ways when discussing the merits and failures of contemporary mainstream Hollywood cinema. I would hate to label this film as pretentious and I’m not going to take up such a hackneyed and frivolous critical position because any critical discourse or wider debate becomes maligned. Additionally, the argument concerning the pretentiousness of the fragmented voice over and existential musings doesn’t hold up when one contextualises Malick’s work. Such aesthetic and thematic concerns have not simply arrived but have been present from his first feature. Admittedly, the use of voice over and montage has become more sophisticated since The Thin Red Line but we need to be cautious about using the term pretentious as it repeats an all too familiar art house prejudice.
Malick is essentially a visual poet (a painter in fact) and The Tree of Life is less a film and more of a video essay that strives to reflect religious concerns. The foregrounding of religion which is resolutely explicit in the film strips away the ideological mystique of Malick and finally confirms his deeply religious sentiments - many of which seem to function and be played out in a reality that has very little connection to the wider social, political and economic fabric of daily life. With even his most recent works including The Thin Red Line and The New World Malick’s transcendental imagery may point to another hidden world in which nature controls and shapes the human condition but the narrative and characters are situated in a real world ideology that is tangible and on going as is the case with the war machine and imperialism. It is this detachment from the political structures and ideologies of our real world that makes The Tree of Life somewhat disingenuous. If we compare Malick to film makers like Kubrick or even Godard it would be easy to determine that an engagement with political discourse is markedly different. What Malick ensured in his first films was an ambiguity in terms of religious dogma - in fact, religion is actually something metaphysical and has been continually evident until now. Like his previous two films The Tree of Life is unquestionably skillful in its use of ellipsis but such an approach in this case hits a sour note with the religious juxtaposition, coming across in many ways as a personal admittance and confession. Bresson dealt with religion, guilt and the existence of God all through his career as a film maker yet succeeded remarkably to remain relatively distant whilst simultaneously through his understated intercutting between the most benign pattern of shots, edits and sounds created an impression that all of his characters were besieged by spiritual uncertainty. Another misleading and false point of comparison is with Kubrick. Malick’s 20 year gap and the time he takes to make his films is enough for a lot of critics to compare him to Kubrick when thematically and ideologically they are poles apart. The Tree of Life has certainly divided audience reaction and during the screening I logged at least eight people get up and leave just as the creation of the universe sequence got underway. In America some cinemas have had to post explicit warnings underlining the film’s apparently unconventional form. This might be true but its view of the world is highly conventional, reiterating an old age meta narrative that re-establishes an orthodoxy/absolutism familiar to many of us. Many critics have remarked on the richness of the cinematography but no one is questioning Malick’s painterly eye for landscapes but with The Tree of Life by repeatedly framing his characters against magic hour sunsets he risks falling into the trap of redundant existential pondering. So in conclusion I would have to say that Malick's masterpiece is somewhat bloated, ineffectual and distinctly American. Mind you, the dinosaurs look great.
So here is a sample of the magical work of special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull who was involved with the universe sequence (and the clearest link to Kubrick and more explicitly the imagery in the sequence recalls 2001 in many ways):