If there’s one thing Terrence Malick cannot be accused of, it’s rushing into things without thinking them through.  His directorial debut, Badlands, was released in 1973, and his second feature, Days Of Heaven, followed in 1978.  20 years later, his third movie, The Thin Red Line, was finally released.  That gap was made even more extraordinary because Malick had first begun to adapt the movie in 1989.  Malick’s next movie, The New World, was released in 2005.

The Tree Of Life was originally slated to begin production in January of 2006, and Colin Farrell and Mel Gibson were attached to star.  Later, Sean Penn and Heath Ledger were rumoured to be in the cast instead, but when filming began in 2008, Penn and Brad Pitt were the movies most recognisable names.

That the film is only now being released appears to be due to a combination of Malick’s relentless quest for perfection, and various squabbles and boardroom changes with production companies.  It was expected to premiere at Cannes in 2010, but ultimately premiered at Cannes this year, and even won the Palme d’Or.

Despite winning at Cannes, its first screening drew a mixture of applause and boos.  Having watched the movie, this is perhaps not surprising.

The Tree Of Life, simply put, is hard to define.  The basic plot revolves around Sean Penn’s character Jack, looking back on his life as a boy growing up in 1950s America.  Brad Pitt plays his domineering father, who seeks to install discipline and respect in Jack and his two younger brothers.  The film begins with Jack’s mother (played by Jessica Chastain) receiving a telegram to inform her that one of her sons has died.

It appears that the movie will become a straightforward melodrama, but it suddenly switches into a long, almost entirely wordless, montage of stunning visuals, seemingly showing the evolution of the world.  This sequence includes the much talked about presence of dinosaurs, as we see a large aquatic dinosaur seemingly dying on a beach, followed by a smaller dinosaur lying wounded beside a river.  A larger predatory dinosaur places its foot on the head of the injured creature, before leaving it to die alone.

After this, the movie returns to a more familiar style, and focuses on the young Jack and his experiences with his brothers and parents.  He’s scared of his father who is strict and fierce as he tries to teach his children how to become decent men.  But his mother has a more innocent attitude and the children enjoy spending time with her more.  Jack is played by newcomer Hunter McCracken, and he does an excellent job of conveying the learning process every child goes through without words, as long periods of the movie pass by with little or no dialogue, a lot of which is narrated in a whisper.

While I was watching the movie, four people walked out.  Although I enjoyed The Tree Of Life, I can understand why.  It’s very non-linear, there’s little dialogue and the scenes seem fragmented.  Perhaps Malick does this to represent the older Jack having gaps in his memories, perhaps parts of his young life that he’s blocked out for some reason.

If you decide to watch The Tree Of Life, you should enter the cinema with an open mind.  Despite its July opening, The Tree Of Life is not a blockbuster.  There are no car chases, no explosions, no super slow-motion close ups of bullets being fired from guns.  It’s a complicated, complex study of human life and what it means to actually be alive.  Terrence Malick’s latest movie will leave you with more questions than answers, and you’ll leave the cinema wondering what you’ve just seen.  But you owe it to yourself to see it, even if it’s just to remind yourself of the power of film and the big questions of life.

David Dougas
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