"If there is one thing harder than constructing and creating a film such as The Tree of Life, it’s reviewing it"

Terrence Malick, with his first film in six years, has produced one of the bravest and most admirable pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. The Tree of Life asks impossible questions and then seeks to resolve them. It tells the tale of Jack O’Brien, portrayed in the modern day by Sean Penn. Jack had a difficult upbringing, with an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) always demanding the very best of his three sons. One of whom, sadly, died at just 19. With a complex and somewhat tender childhood, Jack is now desperately trying to uncover the meaning of life, whilst questioning its validity in the meantime. In what has become a disenchanted period in Jack’s life, it seems that as time goes on, the loss of innocence only gets harder to overcome.

The film mostly takes place in the 1950’s, in a flashback of Jack’s (played as a child by Hunter McCracken) childhood. However, it fails to stick to the median of contemporary film, and to the initial story-line for that matter, with various cut-sequences, some lasting up to twenty minutes, of naturalistic and defining images, accompanied by classical music.

Images of space and other natural landmarks, such as volcanoes, are depicted, shot quite beautifully and intensely – in what we imagine to be the answers to all of Jack’s questions about life and existence. Malick even delves into the prehistoric as footage of dinosaurs surviving in the wild is also portrayed within the feature.

As a result the film is as much a piece of art as it is a movie. It relies heavily on visual aspects and the lack of dialogue during this lengthy production, is evident. At some stages throughout the film, you expect to hear David Attenborough’s voiceover come in as some of the footage seems more like an episode of ‘Life’ than a Hollywood production. 

But the film is all about interpretation and what we the audience wish to make of it. I could completely understand if someone told me they hated it and found it utterly pretentious – but then again I could also fully appreciate if someone told me that it’s the greatest film they’ve ever seen. It goes beyond the barriers of what is supposedly normal, and it almost has a life of its own. It’s imaginative and despite the lack of dialogue, is a wonderful study of character and traditionalist family values.

It explores 1950’s family life in America succinctly, and the portrayal of Jack as a troubled child, becoming a distressed adult, is emotional and poignant. Not to mention the unconditional love between a mother and her children, portrayed greatly by the mother (Jessica Chastain), particularly when losing her son.

Despite the innovation shown by Malick, the film can be, dare I say it, fairly boring and repetitive in parts. I’m open to inventive cinema, but there were points when after 15 minutes of staring at the galaxy, I did want the film to move on slightly.

But having said that, it’s a quite sensational feature film and not only asks questions about life and existence in the film itself, but also asks questions of the audience, as we too start questioning the basic foundations that our lives are based on. It’s emotionally charged and spectacular to look at. It may not necessarily answer the big question on the meaning of life, but my god, it certainly gets as close as it possibly can.