There is only one Terrence Malick in this world and for his cinematic output we should be extremely grateful. Not that his output shares anywhere near the numbers of prolific peers such as Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen; Since 1973 when Malick released his debut feature Badlands up until the release of his newest film The Tree of Life he has only directed five films. However, what he lacks in quantity he makes up for in quality, a unique quality that sets him apart from any other filmmaker ever to have lived and one that divides audiences right down the middle. His films aren't necessarily hard to digest, they just aren't for everyone; over the years Malick's style has remained consistent yet constantly developing and evolving, taking aspects of his visual style, themes, and obsessions and pushing them to the limits while focussing less and less with a pushing narrative.
In his debut film Badlands (1973) we saw his fictionalised account of the notorious Starkweather-Fugate killing spree that took place during South America in the 1950s. His next film Days of Heaven (1978) focussed on the fall of grace between a chronically ill farmer and his two workers while caught in a love triangle. It would be twenty years before Malick would complete work on his third feature The Thin Red Line (1998) a World War II film based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones, it was at this point in his career that the true essence of his style had come to fruition; The wandering narrative picking up with one character one minute then dropping them and picking up with another without any introduction, long lingering shots of nature whether it be a wide shot of trees bending, a close-up of a snail crawling, or native children playing. It was also at this point in Malick's career where as a fan you either had abandoned him or stepped over the edge with him. His next film, 2005's The New World further cemented Malick's sensibilities as a filmmaker even further, again like his previous outing this film was a wondering meditative poem to cinema that although follows the troubles between the native Americans and the English settlers during the 17th century, seemed more hung up on the relationship between man and nature once again. Like his war film the action sequences are beautifully but tragically filmed from a God's eye point of view that reminds us of the complicated evil humans are capable of whilst surrounded by the simple sereneness of nature.
This slight overview of Malick's career is importantly referenced when talking about his new release The Tree of Life as it sees the auteur director pushing perhaps even his most loyal follows to their limits.
Like Badlands this new story (if you can call it a story) takes place in the 1950s, it follows a family of two boys brought up by a stern world worn father (Brad Pitt) and an angelic idealistic mother who seems to be and is literally shown to be at one with nature at times. We learn at the beginning that one of the sons has been killed, how?, we never learn but we suspect Vietnam, from then on we follow the remaining son Jack as an adult (played by Sean Penn) and as a young boy (Hunter McCracken). The loose narrative is fragmented and the editing is brutal, there must be more jump cuts present than Godard could even dream of; one moment adult Jack is working in what seems to be an extremely high end job (architect?), then we cut back to Jack as a boy playing in the garden with his brother, going to church, being told off or hit by his father. Then we are thrown back into Jack's adult life minutes later where he wanders aimlessly through streets with no direction. If all this wasn't enough to take in, Malick pulls us out of the intimate 1950s family life when we have just got settled in and takes us back to the dawn of time, yes that's right, nothingness. This segment lasts 20 minutes and slowly but surely we see the world being made, as atoms collide into other atoms we finally arrive at something that resembles a liveable habitat, then after that cells collide with other cells and organs grow and limbs and lungs are built we see the creation of sea creatures and eventually land dwellers. These creatures eventually become dinosaurs and Malick follows them around while we feel more and more like we're watching a BBC production, then in the blink of an eye we are back to being thrown around between the events of Jack's life once again.
While this all sounds ridiculous and like too much hard work the film for all its innovations and gutsy decisions has a simple agenda at its core. Malick's camera once again roams around as if hoping once again that he will capture God on film, that he will see both God and nature as one. In following Jack's young life we see how he is torn between his upbringing; his father is deeply rooted in the ways of the cruel modern world but his mother remains rooted in the simplicity and serenity of nature, these factors conflict inside him and end up as burdens he carries into adult life. As a man Jack has become part of the corporate world, a world that has lost touch and so therefore he has lost touch. How do we place ourselves on Earth and maintain a purpose when we are no longer part of it?
As much as The Tree of Life offers no answers it gives us the chance to think about life's many questions and helps us to confront our disillusions with the modern world and where we come into the equation. The daring creation sequence that the film fearlessly shows might feel jarring and perhaps unnecessary to some but its purpose is important to remind us that the problems we face no matter how big they feel in proportion to our everyday day hum drum lives are not important when you take a step back. Malick gives us the chance to step back; as the opening Biblical quote from Job 38:4 declares, God said unto Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand".
Some are saying that Malick has gone too far this time (not that this kind of statement gets thrown at him very often) and others are declaring The Tree of Life a milestone of cinema on the same level as Kubrick's 2001. What side of this verdict you'll fall into will depend on how much you're willing to invest in what can easily be called the most beautifully profound film ever made. You get out of it what you put in to it, it's all up to you.