Many film critics hailed Terence Malick’s ambitious fifth feature, The Tree of Life, as a masterpiece at Cannes, where it won the Palme D’Or. The film then went on to have a major backlash, and then a clear division between lovers and haters. It is a film that has been endlessly argued over, in terms of both its quality and its meaning. It is also a film that is particularly hard to be objective about. Your tolerance or intolerance of it will be a personal choice.
For me, The Tree of Life is really two films of about equal length, one about life, the universe and everything and the other about Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) maturation from childhood to adulthood via puberty. The first film is a lyrical film about the place of human beings in the world and an examination of the need for compassion in spite of a fiercely natural world. This film is majestic, beautiful and really rather moving. In a sense, it is Malick’s masterpiece. We move from the feeling of dislocation and lose that comes with being an adult in a materialistic society to the creation of the world, the beginning of life on earth and finally the joy of reproduction. The family is seen in a highly positive light, a cocoon against the ruthless competition that remains prevalent in many guises throughout the earth’s lifespan. It suggests the rather insignificant place that humans hold in the grand scheme of things, but gives hope. The human way of life may be meaningless, but the little things are what matters. It is not an original message, but the film presents its idea brilliantly, using images to suggest ideas rather than to advance narrative cause and effect.
However, the film soon shifts its attention to a similarly, though less successfully, lyrical portrait of the troubles that come with growing up. The film takes on new concerns and preoccupations to such an extent that the only signifier that it is the same film as the fact that it has the same actors playing the same parts. In this second film we follow young Jack as he experiences a sexual awakening, peer pressure from friends and intolerance from his domineering father (Brad Pitt). The family becomes less a cocoon than a site of dissatisfaction and rivalry. It is such a drastic shift in tone that the film never really recovers and had the two films been released separately, critics would argue that Malick was actively disagreeing with himself.
Unfortunately, the second film is less original and a lot less exciting. Taken together, the two films tear each other apart and the main reaction once the film ends is one of extreme disappointment, not least because the last five minutes are something of a misstep. What makes the first film nearly a masterpiece is that, by watching it, you find out something about yourself based on your reaction to what happens onscreen, whether you laugh out loud or get a lump in the throat. With the second film, there is less room to manoeuvre. Malick becomes more blunt, more opinionated and no longer leaves the film open to whatever its audience might want to take out of it. While the first film allows you to see and feel what you will (whether positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic), the second film is more of an obviously didactic work.
The film is entirely a visual work, one that lets the images move the film forward, rather than any plot points or dialogue. It is a meditation, rather than a story. Whether it is a good or great film may remain undecided, it is a breath of fresh air that such an ambitious film can be made in this day and age. After all, not every film should fit into a box designated by accountants in Hollywood. Some films can and should be unashamedly arty, whether profound or pretentious. It is a film of ideas in which some work better than others and the quality of the film, as well as its message, is, refreshingly, entirely up to you.