Cannes Review: The Tree Of Life

Terrence Malick has only made a handful of films in 38 years. So when a new one comes along, it is always an event - and yesterday's world premiere of his The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and the very busy Jessica Chastain, who also had
the disturbing apocalyptic thriller Take Shelter in Cannes, was no exception.

Filmed three years ago, the press-shy auteur's fragmented epic is challenging, bloated, sometimes boring, poignant and one of the most visually breathtaking films since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Book-ended by a haunted-looking Sean Penn, the film is both an intimate family drama and an epic overview of the origins and fragility of life. With monumental ambition, Malick depicts the fiery birth of planet Earth from cosmic dust, and the origins of life on land. A vaguely twee scene with dinosaurs appears to show the beginnings of empathy, before the beasties are wiped out by a meteor.

After the awe-inspiring visual splendour of these elemental scenes, the sections focusing on the story of Penn's character's childhood in a small Texas town in the 1950s feel a little bathetic. His parents, played by Chastain and Pitt, personify the eternal struggle between good and bad that is at the heart of Malick's films. She is grace and love; he is ego, anger and disappointment.

Here the creation of the Earth becomes the development of a boy from childhood innocence to adult disillusionment and, his claustrophobic environment of vertiginous tower blocks seems to be saying, to a way of living that is estranged from nature and spiritually bankrupt.

The mixture of boos and applause that erupted at the end of the Cannes screening suggested the film will divide audiences. But then Malick has been doing that ever since The Thin Red Line. But love The Tree of Life or loathe it, it is impossible to fault Malick's ambition and not to admire a man who is making big, personal, non-genre films at a time when many filmmakers are playing it safe. Long may he continue. 
Originally published in The Scotsman, 17/05/11

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