I usually avoid reviews until after I have seen a film, but inevitably I had picked up a lot of comment about this film already. I am not a great Terrence Malick fan: I liked his early films a lot more than his recent ones. For the first hour of the film I struggled to really get involved: for the second hour I was enthralled by the drama: for the last half-an-hour I was again bemused. It seems to me that the parts are better than the whole. Specifically, I really like the family drama, which is possibly autobiographical: rather than being annoyed I was seriously puzzled by the cosmological overtones of a series of insert sequences.
Basically it seems that Jack O’Brien [played by Sean Penn in his briefest screen appearance for years] is looking back to his childhood and upbringing. There is his father Mr. O’Brien [Brad Pitt], the Mr. is significant. Then there is his mother [Jessica Chastain], and his two brothers. One of these dies in his teens. I thought another also died, but that was just confusion from the sometimes-elliptical narrative. The development of this drama is impressive. Gradually we learn of the contradiction and conflicts that underlie the family. And the initial picture of a god-fearing family at ease in its post-war affluence gives way to a realisation of the repression and oppression at its heart.
This flashback is interspersed with shots of nature, the universe, and the ‘big bang’? Presumably these relate in some way to Jack memories. They are frequent in the first hour and recur again the last half-an-hour when Jack also imagines a family union [perhaps] after death. Since I never figured a clear relationship between the drama and the film of natural phenomenon, [created with the assistance of Douglas Trumbull] I preferred the middle hour where these occur infrequently.
To be honest I felt that I was watching a feature combining excerpts from 2001 and Kubrick’s home movies.
I have now looked at some film reviews, mainly offering praise, if sometimes qualified. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian thinks that the film ‘may well come to be seen as this decade’s great Christian artwork’. As a Marxist and materialist that leaves me with little sympathy for the film project. However, I think the ‘Christian’ is mis-placed, though it is true that the mother figure is presented as a devout [and to be honest rather cloying] practising Christian. But overall the film struck me as far more pantheistic than Christian: especially in the constant shots of nature. Later in his review Bradshaw offers this: ‘gigantic scenes from the secret life of the cosmos endow these family dramas with something alienated bewildering . . . in which their traumas are vanishingly tiny and yet have excruciatingly new spiritual magnitude.’ The comments strike me as almost as portentous as I found the film. It is not that the film attempts to address a sense of the spiritual: Carl Dreyer’s Ordet [The Word, 1952) does this very successfully and I find it deeply moving. In Malick it appears to be an attempt at religiosity, which does not really cohere or offer a clear sense of meaning. Like an onion [or Lacan] when you peel it all away there is nothing at the centre.
As I said, I like Malick’s early films Badlands (1974) and Days of Heaven (1978), though I am now curious as to what degree his recent films might be prefigured there. Fortunately both are available, in fact they are coming to the Leeds Hyde Park in August. The Thin Red Line (1998) I found somewhat portentous. Moreover, as with many so-called anti-war movies, it failed to address the concrete questions of the actual war it represented. Apart from the asides into nature, it seemed rather similarly to may other US war movies I have endured. The New World (2005) I thought lacked a sense of interest in its characters, and was not that interesting visually.
Malick is clearly well served by talented collaborators, notably in this film by the director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki. I did not actually find watching the film dragged as it is so beautiful to look at. But for 138 minutes more is required. Part of the problem would seem to be that Malick’s work has achieved cult status: hence he is able to recruit extremely talented stars who are also pretty good box office. That may be part of the problem, the film feels overblown. In a way that I find similar to the later Kubrick excess seems to trump the human qualities of the films. So does the emperor have any clothes? I feel that this feature demonstrates the problems of some auteur criticism. André Bazin presumably would love this movie, as he appeared to think that a poor film by an auteur was preferable to a good one by a non-auteur. I am sure that the only valid explanation of The Tree of Life lies in the experiences and memories of the director Terrence Malick. But I think there are other filmmakers around who could provide a retro look at the 1950s for a lot less money and with greater coherence.