The Tree Of Life – film review

Terence Malick is one of the few film directors working today who is still regarded as an auteur, a visual lyricist, a unique voice unbound by commercial imperative or franchise potential. His seemingly glacial rate of productivity makes the 6 year gap since his last (The New World) his shortest to date. Not many directors can boast of making 5 features over a span of 40 years and still be held in such high esteem.

This of course is a precursor to the fact that The Tree Of Life is a hugely ambitious work of cinematic art, choosing to tell the tale no less than of the birth of the universe, the history of our galaxy, Planet Earth, the birth of life, evolution, and somewhat inevitably, The End Of Time itself. No wonder it runs at almost 2 and a half hours.

Whilst some might consider the entirety of existence more than enough to be getting on with, Malick has woven this eternal narrative around one man’s childhood memories, the remembrance of his youth in the Texan 1950s, and his fraught relationship with his father. Sean Penn bookends the film as the nostalgic adult Jack, his father’s memories infused with gruff stoicism in an excellent turn by Brad Pitt (continuing to age gracefully) and the teenaged Jack played in a breakout role by first-timer Hunter McCracken.

Edited in a way that it will take the audience some time to settle into the film’s tidal flow, the film opens with news of the family’s tragic loss, before segueing into the visually stunning 45-minute sequence that covers the history of time. Comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey will be inevitable and no doubt frequent – it will be no surprise that Douglas Trumbull (responsible for the visual effects here) was indeed the man who created those iconic images for Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Narrowing the scope to a hazily hued memory of a long lost childhood, we witness the O’Brien family grow from birth to their teenaged years, seeing the sons grow into mirrors and shadows of their short tempered old man. Relative newcomer Jessica Chastain plays the boys’ mother with a beatific grace that betrays both innocence & wisdom in equal measure. Immaculately dressed anew in each scene, she enchants the viewer’s eye much as she does her son’s recollections.

Much as one’s own memories may be fleeting, inconsistent or sometimes incomplete, the film is an impressionistic montage of images & insights that seemingly exist outside of a time frame, trusting the audience to draw their own conclusions as information is meted out, building to a climactic and hugely powerful emotional finale.

The Tree Of Life may not be for every audience, its (eventual) release mid-summer seems an odd choice when it has to battle with super heroes and extra-terrestrials for attention on the big screens.

Having already won the Palme D’or at Cannes this year, you can be certain of plenty more awards to come. A mesmeric elegy to lost innocence & youth, The Tree Of Life is a stunning work of cinema that offers no easy answers and will no doubt be the source ofcinephile essays and debates for many years to come.

The Tree of Life is released in UK cinemas on July 8th.

This review was originally written for


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