A version of this review appeared in The Age, July 2, 2011.
In The New World (2006), Terrence Malick went back to the 17th century to imagine the relations between Native Americans and their British colonisers. Malick's new film The Tree of Life is an equally extraordinary vision of first contact; not between two cultures, this time, but between a soul and the universe.
Quite literally, much of the film's opening section is devoted to the origins of the world: molten lava pouring from the earth's core, life emerging from the ocean. A dinosaur lies prone by a riverbank; a larger predator wanders past and sets its claw on its victim's head, then mysteriously goes on its way. Pure chance, or a kind of miracle?
It's impossible to know. A few million years pass by, and the film takes up the story of the O'Brien family in Waco, Texas, some time in the 1950s. Brad Pitt plays the self-regarding father, whose first name remains unknown (he likes his offspring to call him “sir”). His saintly wife (Jessica Chastain) follows what the film defines as “the way of grace”: she suppresses her ego, loves without passing judgement.
There are three boys: the oldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken) is the most forceful, and the main narrator. Played by Sean Penn as an adult, he's glimpsed going about his business as an architect in present-day Manhattan, a chilly city of glass and steel which Malick films from vertiginous high and low angles; with his shifty, unstable gaze, Penn might be about to slide off the edge of the planet.
Everything in The Tree of Life recedes as quickly as it appears: the camera flashes between rooms of the house, swoops in on faces like a bird. The film is a stream of glancing epiphanies, often involving characters reaching out to one another with varying success: Pitt mechanically stroking his son while he stares out the window, Chastain reading to the boys at bedtime, the wordless interaction between Jack and his baby brother.
At the centre of it all is the pained, weirdly touching portrait of a father: amateur musician, aspiring inventor, churchgoer, family man, tyrant. Pouting like a monkey emperor, Pitt emerges as a distinctively Malickian comic figure: a spiritual cousin to Martin Sheen's clueless would-be outlaw in Badlands (1971), lecturing his offspring about the genius of Toscanini or bragging about the bathrooms on his plane to China.
Tormented by his sense of failure, he lords it over his household: this is one place where the “universal” themes of the film connect with the domestic microcosm. “You let anything happen,” Jack murmurs accusingly. He seems to be talking to God, but he could just as well be denouncing the hypocrisy of his parent, who puts his elbows on the table and interrupts his kids.
No doubt, Malick's style has its precious, mannered qualities: the willed ecstasies, the whispered voiceovers, the ethereal music. But it would be a mistake to see him as a forbidding, intellectual director: he's less a philosopher than a lyric poet, who asks his audience to feel and respond. The dilemma is that coming to consciousness, recognising what Malick calls the “glory” of all things, seems, at least for some, to imply estrangement from that glory. At the same time, human personalities are seen as mere emanations of some greater, unknowable power.
Light glitters on the drops of water from a sprinkler; the sun burns behind the trees. What the film is getting at could be summed up in this line by Paul Eluard, which Patrick White, an artist on par with Malick, used as the epigraph to his novel The Solid Mandala: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”