“The Tree Of Life” is confusing on all levels. It’s three different movies all crammed into one. When it works, it engages all the viewer’s senses and takes you to a very different and better state of mind.
When it doesn’t work, it feels pretentious, self-indulgent and uncomfortably grandiose. It will challenge you on every level and you won’t ever have seen anything like it.
One of the stories has its focus on Sean Penn’s tortured adult life. We know he’s not happy because his whole face and body radiate pain, even amid luxury and plenty. Another story looks at his childhood with his two brothers, mother and father in the 1950s.
As the father, Brad Pitt is a revelation. He has never given a better performance and his portrayal of an angry failed businessman with musical dreams has enormous pathos and depth.
The third film within this is in turns overblown and pretentious and deeply moving. There’s a slightly whispered voiceover that makes me think of Yoda. I like Yoda a lot, but his playfulness is absent. Stuff about nature, grace and love is said while incredible montages of sky, weather, planets and dinosaurs swoosh before your eyes.
But lines like “father, mother, always you wrestle inside me” summon up the rather tortured phrasing of Yoda, without the fun. The softness of the voices – these words are said hesitantly – leaves you a little startled.
Too often, I thought it was nonsense and looked at my watch a lot. Yet the impressionistic images stay in my head, so there was a lot more here than I first thought there was. It’s very beautiful. The music is glorious, yet somehow intrusive.
It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May and I am told there was as much jeering and booing as there was applause when it was screened there.
Terrence Malick is a love him or hate him director. I see the passion in each of his five films and admire it, but I don’t warm to his work.
One of the problems I have with this is that I go to movies to lose myself and the memories, images and illusions here demand that you go deeply into yourself and your own story. Inevitably, you will think about your own family relationships and focus on them in a different way.
Death in the family is delicately described and understated, emphasising the tragic. Jessica Chastain’s performance and face, as the mother, pushes you to your own family story and deeper beliefs, rather than into her story.
Should you see it? The Stratford Picturehouse audience was deeply divided. Some people left partway through, muttering that it was nonsense. Others sat there after the credits, looking stunned. It’s deeply affecting and yet irritating, in equal measures.
See it if you like being challenged and enjoy travel to unfamiliar places. If you can handle its leisurely pace and softness, there is something to learn here, although I can’t say for certain what that is.