The Tree Of Life


Life, the universe, everything. Any questions?

When Connecticut ’s Avon Theatre put up a poster warning customers not to expect refunds if they found Terrence Malick’s fifth flick a bit arty, the daft notice harboured some seeds of reason.

Malick has made meditative art pics before, but none of the four merited warning folks that his “mystical tree movie” wasn’t Avatar 2. But Tree’s freeform reverie spirals off from The New World’s foundation myth and the aching heart of grief to probe the whys (and whoas) of creation.

Grand personal testimony? Maybe, but that doesn’t do justice to the sheer ballsiness of the 20-minute Creation Of Stuff sequence.

Footage shot over decades fuels its symphony of cells, stars, volcanoes, meteors, embryos and dinosaurs, an all-encompassing crack at creation that expands spiritual cinema’s scope with a Hubble-load of hard science.

Psychology grounds the heady mix. Unlike Kubrick’s equally-cosmic-yet-colder 2001, Malick roots Tree in a mess of warm humanity. The Thin Red Line’s bullet-strafed paradise moved to the dinner table, the ’50s Texas upbringing of Jack (affectless Hunter McCracken), son to belligerent Brad Pitt and beatific Jessica Chastain, is vividly rendered.

Framed as the recollections of adult Jack (a brooding Sean Penn), the family portrait feels found rather than forced, memories bubbling up in emotion-fired fragments.

True, Mrs O’Brien is over-idealised, an angelic image of gravity-defying grace in Jack’s Oedipal memory. Pitt’s performance as Mr O’Brien crackles with complexity, however, and Malick’s direction dances to life’s sensual rhythms. Breezes ripple curtains like memories entering old haunts; children’s shadows evoke ghosts of those gone too soon.

That poetic realism gives anchor to The Big Questions raised in hushed voiceover, exacerbated by Jack’s brother’s death at 19 – Malick’s own brother died at 19 – and intensifying the yearning for cosmic solace.

The short-but-strong 30-minute doc doesn’t dish up any biog details but it does illuminate the methods in Malick’s magic. Fans Nolan and Fincher bring the reverence, while Chastain tells how Malick motivated actors on-set by whispering to them “you’re my co-director” as cameras constantly rolled. Further popping the director’s lofty-professor image, Pitt reveals that Malick is always the first to play when a ball game is on.

The resulting film is genuinely philosophical, out-on-a-limb American cinema that feels thrillingly, rapturously alive.

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