The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick creates a 'visual poem' for the 21st century - are you willing to be moved?

The Tree of Life, as those who have attended Sunday School may remember, was the other tree in the Garden of Eden. We don't hear much about it, since Eve only ate from the Tree of Knowledge. You have to wonder what would have happened if she'd choosen from the other one.

Film director Terrence Malick comes with many labels attached: recluse, genius, auteur, legend. In many ways he's following a path laid out by Stanley Kubrick, remaining in unprolific seclusion for years until, when he does pop up, the world is another masterwork the richer.

The Tree of Life is Malick's first film in six years, and only the fourth since 1973's Badlands. As with Kubrick, Malick's output is increasingly personal and unconcerned with pleasing an audience. Typically, The Tree of Life is a tough sell, and there was some booing at Cannes. Nevertheless it was awarded the covetted Palme d'Or.

The Tree of Life is more abstract than literal, its meaning found in the images and their juxtaposition. To focus on the plot is to miss the point, like trying to debate what fruit hung from the Tree of Life, instead of what its meaning is.

Passages showing the lives of one family are juxtaposed with eye-popping visuals of the biggest story of all: the birth of the universe. The overall effect is that of the chaos of creation, from which order emerges. A small but important framing narrative forms our way into the movie.

Jack (Sean Penn) is an architect, lost in the modern world of glass and concrete towers as he ponders the meaning of suffering and tries to piece together his identity from his childhood memories and emotions. As Penn's character is an architect, God is the Universe's architect. Are we to conclude that God is also lost? Or is it just that we've mislaid him, and that he's there if we care to look?

The answer lies in the past, in which Jack and his two brothers spent their summers outside, their parents not yet fearing predators and mud. It's not all Happy Days though. Brad Pitt is an All-American father, but one with a dark edge of bottled-up frustration (how did the WWII soldiers return home and re-adjust to pushing lawnmowers and wearing pastel-coloured polo shirts?) and unrealised dreams. Mr O'Brien loves his family but seeks to toughen them against what he perceives as a threatening world.

Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) grudgingly obeys his father, not because Dad is right, but because, as he puts it: 'You're the father'. Mr O'Brien embodies the idea of a father as a family's God, who rules his people by divine right. More New Testament is the boys' mother (Jessica Chastain), who is the household's angel and its martyr, but also loving and nurturing as she tries to coax the best out of her three sons.

Malick chose Chastain, a fragile and ethereal redhead, as a new face free of the baggage of recognition. Brad Pitt, apparently, can be relied upon to transcend being Brad Pitt, but the same cannot be expected of a known actress. Intriguing then, that she's a dead ringer for a younger Sissy Spacek, Malick's lead in Badlands.

While owing much to Christian philosophy, The Tree of Life shies away from Creationism. One short scene shows a dinosaur rejecting the chance to make an easy meal of another, inverting the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which an ape discovers that a thigh bone forms a tool to bash another's head in.

That film was made more than 40 years ago, its God a black obelisk from Outer Space, but Malick address a similar audience that is disenchanted with consumer culture and yearning for spirituality. Where 2001 implodes in dealing with the 'What next?' question, here Malick provides an answer, if a remarkably unprofound and only slightly comforting one. In a bland hereafter without pain or suffering, there's resolution, but little craic to be had.

As in his previous films, Malick largely eschews conversation and trusts to the visuals to tell the story. We'd have liked some more interaction between the characters, which would allow us to open an internal dialogue between us and them and shorten the emotional distance we cannot help but feel.

The ponderous voiceover, with its whispered prayers and trite, God-seeking questions, is no substitute. The story of the family in itself would have made a powerful film, and the contrived phrasing of the voiceover undermines emotional authenticity by aiming, unnecessarily, for philosophical elevation.

Undeniably, The Tree of Life is visually impressive, with sterling work by Director of Photography, Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk, both Malick veterans. Effects maestro Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey), came out of retirement and created one gorgeous image after another, working in harmony with classical music from stalwarts Bach, Mozart and Holst to neo-esoterics Preisner and Gorecki.

The creation of the universe and other scenes are not approached scientifically but with an artist's eye, and the use of old-fashioned techniques brings it to life in a way that is arresting for an audience blase about CGI. The movie is in reality a visual poem – enjoyable for its cadence and imagery, with its perspectives both small and expanding outwards in time and space.

If a film sets up powerful emotional resonances as Malick's does, viewers complete it in their own minds by bringing their personal histories and beliefs to the table. As a film, The Tree of Life acts as conduit, and whether it succeeds depends on its audience's lack of cynicism, on its receptiveness and its willingness to open up and be moved.

The Tree of Life is at QFT from July 15-28.