Take ten different people to see Terrence Malick's new abstract, mind-bending, universe spanning, melodrama, The Tree of Life and you will probably get ten completely different perspectives in the post-pub discussion afterwards. So it really doesn't matter what I say about it as a film because you most likely aren't going to agree with me. However it's because of this odd quirk it may be the most essential film released this year.
Already winning the coveted Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, The Tree of Life tells the tale of a 1950s family featuring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the mother and father to three sons. Imploring the use of beautifully shot scenes and a slow emotive score from the brilliant Alexandre Desplat rather than being heavily dialogue driven, Malick gives the audience not so much a straight film but a strange philosophical examination on the wonders of the universe and how everything is seemingly interconnected by what we do with our time on this plane of existence. Hope this is making sense to you dear reader, because I'm still trying to get my head round it.
The dynamic between Pitt and Chastain in regards to their children was interesting, almost as if both individuals, flawed as they are, represented the two extremes of a person in their life. Pitt being the stern father figure, a cynical deadbeat, punishing his sons, most likely in ways he was punished as a child himself. Buried beneath that deep seeded spite however was a man just trying to do good by his family, even if his methods are a bit extreme by modern standards. Chastian on the other hand, is a much more purer and spiritual soul than her husband - often being quoted during the more cosmic moments of the film in relation to her Christianity or her family.
The children themselves are perhaps the audience's only real indication of the narrative moving itself along, as we witness the eldest son's birth, early infancy right through to his teenage years - as well as his constant personal conflict with his father and we witness the birth of his two younger brothers. Perhaps in regards to Sean Penn's ambiguous role in the film - as the eldest son, Jack in later life - you could consider these moments set in the 50s as a representation of the stagnant echoes of memory. Looking back you can only ever remember the key parts of your earlier life, with the cohesion getting more lost the further back you go.
I get the impression and almost weep in despair at the thought of there being about a six hour version of this movie where Sean Penn's role is expanded upon. Otherwise he doesn't really do a lot besides reflect and brood in the moments he features, not counting the utterly bizarre portions where he's whisked away to a deserted landscape and reunited with the rest of the cast of the film in some crossroads of life.
However you aren't really going to watch The Tree of Life for its abstract, fragmented, story. The beauty of it simply lies in letting yourself be immersed in the extremely impressive, almost ethereal, visual effects produced by legendary effects artist Douglas Trumbull - whose credits include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Nonsensical scenes documenting the origin of the universe may seem to most of the average cinema audience has pointless but it really makes for some truly iconic imagery, and perhaps some of the most impressive seen in a film in the last 10 years - not counting the utterly bizarre cameo of a couple of dinosaurs.
Terrence Malick's latest epic will leave you baffled and maybe wondering where the last two and a half hours of your life went. However it may also leave you in complete awe at the wonders of life and the universe and their deeper more profound interconnectedness. Frankly this melodrama, come pseudo philosophical piece is like watching a moving work of art. No single soul will take the same conclusion away from it. My take is that deep down, it's a celebration of life, of the human soul, of man's own spirituality and how insignificant it can all be next to the vastness of the universe. This is a film, for better or worse, which will stay with you for life, will be discussed at great length for decades to come, will turn up in 1001 Films to See Before You Die lists and it's because of these points you must see it on the biggest screen you can find. I can't promise you'll get it, because I can't honestly say I did either, but hey that's life I suppose...
The Tree of Life is in cinemas throughout the UK from Friday. Belfast audiences can see it exclusive in the Queen's Film Theatre from July 15th 2011.