Life: The Movie

Gor­geous, pon­der­ous, pre­ten­tious – Ter­rence Mal­ick’s long-awaited tone poem is a unique cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Review -

FEW FILMS have been quite so an­tic­i­pated as the lat­est re­lease from Ter­rence Mal­ick. De­layed more of­ten than the sec­ond com­ing, The Tree of Life has, even be­fore its re­lease, taken on the qual­ity of a lost relic.

The reclu­sive di­rec­tor of Bad­lands and Days of Heaven al­ready had a sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ing. His sin­gu­lar blend of airy mys­ti­cism and vis­ual grace at­tracts those peo­ple who en­joy it when their films come across like po­ems. Fac­tor in the pres­ence of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and (no, re­ally) the birth of the uni­verse, and you are left with a very en­tic­ing pro­ject in­deed.

So what’s the blasted thing like? Well, the first point to make is that it looks and feels very, very like a Ter­rence Mal­ick film. As was the case with his last two pic­tures ( The Thin Red Line and The New World) jaw-drop­pingly beau­ti­ful im­ages of the nat­u­ral world are played be­neath plan­gent voices in­ton­ing philo­soph­i­cal musings. Clas­si­cal mu­sic swells. Fa­mous faces fur­row. Any vaguely cinelit­er­ate viewer, if put be­fore a ran­domly cho­sen 30-sec­ond in­sert, would be able to iden­tify the di­rec­tor.

Mal­ick is, how­ever, of­fer­ing us hith­erto unimag­in­able scales of nat­u­ral majesty. The core of the film is a ram­bling fam­ily drama set in and around sub­ur­ban Texas dur­ing the 1950s. Solid Brad Pitt plays an an­gry fa­ther. Be­fore be­ing re­placed by Sean Penn, the ex­cel­lent Hunter McCracken es­says Jack, the son with whom dad can’t quite con­nect. Jessica Chas­tain is ab­surdly lu­mi­nous and saintly as the ever-for­giv­ing mater fa­mil­ias.

Be­fore we fo­cus on that tale, Mal­ick finds time to ex­plore a lit­tle bit of back­story. Ex­cuse our face­tious­ness. In fact, the di­rec­tor sets out to il­lus­trate the ori­gins of mat­ter, life, the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing. In a truly stun­ning se­quence that bares com­par­i­son with 2001: A Space Odyssey at its most epic, Mal­ick takes us from the clus­ter­ing of stel­lar neb­u­lae to the birth of our planet to the emer­gence of sin­gle-celled an­i­mals and on to the demise of the un­for­tu­nate di­nosaurs. Scored to gor­geous ro­man­tic themes, the episode has a dreamy, druggy se­duc­tive­ness that just about dis­tracts from the nag­ging sense of empty splen­dour.

Then, jar­ringly, we are plunged back to that sub­ur­ban front gar­den. A flash-for­ward has al­ready told us that one of Pitt’s three sons will die young. The main body of the film finds the fam­ily bick­er­ing and bond­ing while mor­tal­ity lurks over the gor­geously twilit hori­zon.

One can see what Mal­ick is up to here. Trans­pos­ing the cos­mic with the per­sonal al­lows him to pon­der how the big­gest ideas im­pinge on even the most mun­dane cir­cum­stances. The ef­fect, how­ever, is to make his cen­tral nar­ra­tive seem even more hack­neyed and fa­mil­iar.

Amer­i­can film-mak­ers (not to men­tion poets, nov­el­ists and play­wrights) seem in­or­di­nately ob­sessed with ag­gres­sive fathers, and The Tree of Life has lit­tle to add to that end­less dis­cus­sion. More­over, the solemnly in­toned con­ver­sa­tions with God fo­cus on the most ba­nal (if huge) ques­tions. Why are we here? If the Lord is good, then why do bad things hap­pen? Where do we go when we die?

And yet. The sheer au­dac­ity of the pro­ject def­i­nitely gets un­der your skin. The fram­ing se­quences fea­tur­ing a mo­rose Penn do lean to­wards an un­healthy school of late 1960s cod psychedelic pro­fun­dity. (Is he re­ally stand­ing next to a dis­con­nected door­way in a yawn­ing ex­is­ten­tial desert?) But Emanuel Lubezki’s hazy pho­tog­ra­phy and Mal­ick’s sleepy com­po­si­tions have a knack of by­pass­ing the cyn­i­cism glands and get­ting right to that part of the brain that savours mean­ing­less beauty.

For all its grand ges­tures, The Tree of Life is not about very much. No, that’s not quite right. By at­tempt­ing to be about ev­ery­thing, it fails to ex­am­ine even the small­est philo­soph­i­cal quandary in any sig­nif­i­cant depth. But the ef­fort is cer­tainly some­thing to be­hold.

irish­times.com/cul­ture

What’s it all about: Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life

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