Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life was arguably the most anticipated film of this year’s festival. Indeed, anything from the famously reclusive director is always cause for celebration, given that in a career spanning 40 years, The Tree of Life is only his fifth film, and his previous works (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) are all regarded as fascinatingly original films. So, how does this new film fit into Malick’s catalogue?
It’s difficult to write about The Tree of Life after only one viewing. Malick is often cited as the cinema’s greatest example of a ‘visual poet’, and while anyone can appreciate the pretentiousness of such a claim, the label actually does seem to fit, and nowhere is it more appropriate than in a discussion of The Tree of Life. Analysing a poem can be a challenging task, with the finest examples perhaps meaning little when taken at face value, and only through line by line deconstruction can a poet’s true meaning be made evident. And challenging is a great word for describing this film. If you’ve ever seen a Malick film, little has changed in his style. Minimalist dialogue, largely in the form of fractured narration, runs parallel with highly disjointed editing (interestingly, the credits list no less than five editors), and achingly beautiful shots of nature are juxtaposed with characters looking thoughtfully off camera, into the distance. The style is jarring, yet it allows Malick the freedom to be at his most conceptual and introspective, and the result is an incredibly ambitious and uncompromising manifestation of his vision.
Many audience members may be put off by what seems to be a needlessly meandering story, the point of which is wrapped in so many layers that some may argue there is in fact no point. However, Malick’s slow and deliberate pacing does in fact peel back these layers a little at a time, so that when the emotional climax does arrive, it is genuinely moving in a way that so few films are nowadays. The story itself takes second billing in favour of presenting a tone and a nostalgic mood that completely absorbs the viewer who is willing to let Malick take his time with his message. The Tree of Life is unlikely to make any new fans for Malick, but for those who appreciate his thoughtful style, the film is an all too rare treat, and may in fact be the finest display of his unique talent. Just like a great poem, the film demands repeated viewing to break it down and pore over the details, something which many will be looking forward to. There’s no way to gauge who the audience for a film like this is, but regardless of whether you would agree that this is the best 2011 has offered so far, it is guaranteed you will have never seen a film quite like The Tree of Life before.