There’s a fine line between being an artistic visionary and being a pretentious wanker. Terrence Malick is constantly walking that line, and by ‘constantly’ I mean whenever he sees fit to make a film, which on average is every 10 years or so. I can tell you right now that The Thin Red Line is one of those films I never ‘got’; I can dig that some (most) who saw it loved it for its apparent genius, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that when these average WWII grunts spoke out loud, they did so in the words of the common man, but their innermost thoughts were of the highest order of insightful poetry. Nads. No dice. And if one more person tells me that it’s better than Saving Private Ryan I’ll go postal. The only thing they have in common is (a) WWII setting (b) 1998 copyright date. Enough.
The Tree of Life is one of those polarising films where there is no middle ground. None. When it premiered at Cannes this year, it was booed en masse by its audience. It then went on to win the Palme d’Or. Go figure. Inglourious Basterds had the same response, and there is no middle ground with that film. You love it, or you hate it. Nobody is indifferent. I have friends who hate it for the exact same reasons I love it (because it’s just so very, very wrong and broken and messed up). Different strokes for different folks – I had a similar experience watching Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (yes, I liked it, but I can totally understand why others wouldn’t). I can accept why people don’t like these films, and just hope they can accept why I do.
This film is an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that asks multitudes of almost rhetorical questions about the very nature of existence and the role of humans in the world. Talk about your lofty ambitions – there is not a moment in this film, which was shot more than two years ago and has been constructed with a meticulous eye, which doesn’t seem deliberate; part of a grand notion that Malick has. He’s not following any rules here, he’s simply putting on screen his ideas, his vision and not being encumbered by the expectations of whichever audience he’ll get. Perhaps this is his representation of film as art; perhaps he’s trying to create a visual representation if his dreams; perhaps he’s just dealing with some childhood issues – call if film as therapy – and asking the big questions all the while about the presence or absence of God in a world where bad things happen. A quote from the book of Job opens the film, and there is a number of times we see various representations of people asking ‘Why?’
It has a structure and content that is the quintessential piece of filmmaking designed to be opened to interpretation. Malick himself is probably the only person who could explain it to you, and he’s a recluse who doesn’t do press interviews, so he really does leave it all up to you. The only real insight I’ve ever read about him came from the second hand discovery that Peter Biskind put into his nonfiction book Gods and Monsters.
The Tree of Life a film without a traditional linear narrative structure, hardly any dialogue (it has more music than words), and spends a great deal of its running time presenting images about the beginnings of life on earth and the universe. One glowing image repeated a few times suggests God – or does it? That’s the kind of film we’re dealing with here. It’s a film about love, family, personal demons, regrets, religion, pain and suffering. And it has dinosaurs in it.
We may be meant to assume that placing the everyday doings of a family in a quiet 1950s Texas town next to the enormous activities commensurate with the planet’s creation represents an massively elaborate (haters would say ‘overblown’) way of expressing the idea that we, as people, aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things.
It’s a stunning film, visually, and if nothing else it makes you think. Perhaps not in the way that Malick is thinking, but you may ponder what exactly he was thinking. A whole lot of ponderin’ is going on. If you love it, I can see why. If you hate it, I can see why. Just one of those things…