“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.” - Federico Fellini
Ostensibly a tale of growing up in small town America in the 50s, The Tree of Life shows an adult Jack (Sean Penn) attempting to come to terms with the many events in his past that have shaped his present self, including the death of his brother and his shaky relationship with his father, played by Brad Pitt (who is excellent here) . However this is no Stand By Me. Terrence Malick has no interest in using the adult Jack as a mouthpiece to explain his past and the events shown to us. In fact Malick dispenses with classical narrative techniques altogether, even more so than his previous movies. His mission statement here is not so much to tell a tale, but to explore the concepts of life and death in a cinematic poem.
At first the early Sean Penn scenes appear to be an excuse for Malick to shoot modern architecture for the first time in his career. For fans of his previous works this in itself is something to behold. The cold, clean and precise veneer of these shots tells us things about the adult Jack that any amount of dialogue scenes couldn't convey so easily. These shots, absolutely devoid of natural scenery , are used to contrast with the beauty and potential violence of nature hinted at in the 50's set scenes, which are then wholly realised in the segments depicting the birth of all life. While Penn's scenes make up a tiny fraction of the whole piece they are entirely essential to its telling. In fact the film plays out as a fevered dream of a time in his past.
Those familiar with Malick's previous films will know what to expect as far as the style of this movie goes. Beautifully shot collages of imagery, mournful and melancholic voice-over hinting at the inner feelings of its characters. The way the profound voice-over and the fleeting moments of calm and wonder caught in the snapshots of imagery are juxtaposed with the more drawn-out scenes, episodes that show the characters inability to express these feelings in their daily lives, is at times heartbreaking. Themes from his previous movies are explored further here too. The contrasts of life and death, beauty and violence, religion and the absence God are all present as expected. However, rather than feeling like a director repeating himself, there is a sense of expansion in the telling here. Malick had long ago found his voice as a film-maker, this has allowed him to present a work of such confidence that this may very well be his masterpiece to date.
Malick's films have been discussed as hypnotic ever since he first introduced himself with the fantastic Badlands in 1973. I believe with his latest work he has truly mastered this style, the film is hypnotic to the point that at times it seems like a waking dream. The lack of a classical narrative drive helps to maintain this impression. His style helps to alleviate the security in knowing where you are in the story. Even during the last moments of the film there is little sense that a conclusion has been reached and we are due to end the journey. Rather the end credits merely awoke me from the dream state the film had put me into. Of course as with previous Malick films, remnants of the experience are likely to stay with you for a very long time.
It is such a pleasant surprise to see a film like this opening in the summer schedule in the UK in multiplexes, and I say thank god for this. While many attempt to mimic this film-makers style, there are simply not many of his ilk left. Where some see pretension, others experience enlightenment. What may appear to some as self indulgent is in fact essential to the experience Malick intends to offer us.
While the film may not be perfection, on first viewing I found little to criticise, with subsequent viewings perhaps its imperfections will become more apparent, but I am sure this is one experience I will be revisiting many times in the future. If this film still doesn't seem to appeal to you let me add that it has dinosaurs in it.