Terrence Malick is, arguably, quite unlike any other director currently working. His disposition towards a style which essentially depicts poetical lyricism is both bold and radical, bringing him both admirers and detractors in equal measure. Malick feels no need to depict moments of high drama, focusing instead upon philosophical meditations about life, death and love.
His first film since 2005’s The New World, The Tree of Life may perhaps be his most inaccessible film, forgoing a linear narrative and inserting an astonishing sequence depicting the birth of the universe, complete with a glimpse into evolution – including, ambitiously, dinosaurs.
Certainly The Tree of Life is perhaps his most overtly philosophical work: Malick encourages the viewer to simply listen to the voice-over narration, his narrations questioning the manner and nature of life itself. The Tree of Life is simultaneously asking its viewer to be both passive, indulging in the glorious cinematography, whilst also encouraging the viewer to contemplate the issues with which the film focuses upon.
Malick’s narration informs us that there are two paths in life, the way of nature and the way of grace. For Jack (played by Hunter McCraken as a child, later by Sean Penn) each is represented within his parents: his stern father representing nature, his child-like mother representing grace. Jack struggles underneath the two opposing natures present within his parents, ultimately struggling with the nature present within himself. The adult Jack, currently existing within a world-weary state, is apparently spurred by the anniversary of his brother’s death to hearken back to a gloriously realised childhood.
Brad Pitt plays Mr O’Brien, a father who, frustrated in his own aspirations, rules his house in an almost abusive manner, and yet is also completely consumed with love and devotion towards his three sons. Mr O’Brien, through the collapse of his own hopes, ruing his failure to become a successful musician, is determined to instil in his sons, particularly his oldest son Jack, an ability to fight for what he wants. These attempts, rather than encouraging his sons, merely make their father a figure of fear. His changeable nature, swaying between affectation and discipline, make their father unpredictable and thus more difficult to deal with.
In a wonderful scene, the three sons, learning their father is away on a trip, gleefully indulge in all the behaviour they had previously been reprimanded for. Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) ever seeks to do good, indulging her sons, joining in with their feverish games. She acknowledges the affect her husband has upon their sons, comforting them, yet infrequently correcting him. The boys in turn adore their mother and Malick, as if through the perception of the three young boys, represents her as being some manner of otherworldly being.
Certainly Malick is not for everyone: often accused of self-indulgence, his films are reflective, rather than containing any real action set-pieces. His depiction of the grief felt by a mother and father over the loss of a much-loved son is deeply affecting.
The film is flawlessly cast: Jessica Chastain perfectly embodies Mrs O’Brien’s angelic nature, whilst Brad Pitt’s authoritarian father is an ever-looming presence within the young sons’ lives. Malick has shown before his adeptness at working with young actors, the three sons here are natural and realistic, we believe in their relationship with one another, wholly displaying the way in which young children, particularly siblings interact with one another.
Malick certainly has his critics, but for me, his poetical reflections are more exciting, more immersive and more beautiful than anything anyone else has to offer. A Malick film is an experience quite unlike any other.