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The Tree of Life

Year: 2011
Production Co: Cottonwood Pictures
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Bradd Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain

It's a law of physics that the artistic style that defines a director gets more extreme with every film he or she makes. David Lynch films get more nonsensical, Robert Altman films get more crowded, Danny Boyle films get more frenetic and Tarantino's movies get more indulgent about old forms.

For Malick, at least since The Thin Red Line, it's been all about the image. So it was no surprise that a large portion of the running time of this film (more so than that of The New World) is dedicated simply to breathtakingly beautiful but narratively redundant pictures. It's not a bad thing – a vision as distinctive as Malick's should be shared with an audience. I'm just not sure if most of it would be more at home with an art gallery rather than a cinema audience.

Every frame was beautiful, if not in subject then in composition – no matter how unrestrained. But the whole thing left me a little cold. Where I fell in love with The New World, I felt less connected to the story of the 1950s small town Texan family and their struggles to get along. Maybe a million cheap rom coms have a point and we do want to see nothing more than cute couples fall in love, but Malick's story of the Pocahontas myth seemed to have so much more heart. Even the scenes of high emotion in the O'Brien family feel objective rather than immersive, as if you're watching life forms under a microscope.

Of course Malick might be cleverer than I give him credit for as well as a master visualist and that might what he's saying with the extended sequence of the cosmos forming and dinosaurs running around. All those shots of waves of energy floating through space behind the silhouetted Earth and the huge plesiosaur lying on the sand peering intently at its own body might be reminding us that the fears and agonies that tears us to shreds in our own lives don't even register on the scale of the universe around us.

Malick's as choppy with his structure as he is with his filming style here. We're introduced to the O'Briens as the mother (Chastain) gets a phone call informing her of the death of one of her sons. We see the grief and apparent guilt suffered by her husband (Pitt), the authoritarian of the family who was always too hard on his sons, and then we see a little of the boys being born and growing up before we're flung millions of years back in time.

Floating gases drift through a vast vacuum, colours swirl and forms coalesce. We see a biped dinosaur scamper along the edge of a river sizing up prey and a gigantic volcano spewing ash and smoke into the air. With the earth apparently created we settle back onto the O'Briens to see how the boys hate and fear their father and how their mother is a safe haven.

And throughout it we see a lost-looking man (Penn) who turns out to be one of the boys when he's grown up, still trying to make sense of the complicated relationship he had with his Dad. He's a high-level architect who lives and works in a gleaming city and the scenes give Malick the chance to pan his camera sensually over stark urban landscapes as well as natural ones.

It's as beautiful as it is mind-bending and languid as it is frustrating, and it's the perfect example of an auteur filmmaker with all the power over his product. Never one to subscribe to the axiom of 'less is more', Malick can be as freewheeling in the editing suite as he is with his camera and actors, and you get the feeling his films are never quite finished, just abandoned at some point so they can be released.

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