The release of a new film by Terrence Malick is an event and even those of us who aren’t quite true believers in the director’s visionary genius (I adore Days of Heaven  and much of The Thin Red Line  but am ambivalent about Badlands  and thought The New World  risible) can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) was apparently greeted with a mixture of boos of derision and cheers of approbation from audience members when it premiered at Cannes back in May. That contradictory reception seems entirely appropriate, to me. Watching the movie I felt the urge to boo and to cheer at different moments throughout its duration. (OK, maybe even at the same moment, on a couple of occasions.)
For there’s plenty that’s questionable about The Tree of Life, an indulgent 2 hour 10 minute opus that explores the experiences of 1950s Texas family, the O’Briens, within the context of cosmology theories, and that sometimes suggests a mash-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and A River Runs Through It (1992), helmed by Claire Denis. As usual with Malick, the film is loose on motivation and context; it’s full of characters muttering “profound” philosophy in voiceover that’s either too-abstract or spelling-it-out obvious. (The primary exhortations seem to be "Hope!" and "Love!") It boasts a tiresomely protracted evolution montage that finally puts you in mind of the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs, and features contemporary-set scenes with Sean Penn that either needed to be more developed or completely ditched. It wastes Fiona Shaw by giving her about three minutes of screen time and silly platitudes to speak during that three minutes. (Sometimes it seems that the greater the actor the less Malick wants them in his movie.) Playing Mrs. O’Brien as an impossibly idealised (and apparently ageless) Angel in the House, Jessica Chastian is asked to spend rather too much wandering around ethereally and gazing soulfully out of windows. And although Brad Pitt (who also co-produced the film) gives a decent enough performance as the authoritarian Father, you may find yourself pondering what an actor with more screen presence might have brought to this pivotal role.
And yet, for all these problems, The Tree of Life is still one of the most memorable and entrancing movies that I’ve seen this year. Malick’s gift for rhythm, the tactility and flow his images, is incredibly seductive and, at times, kinetically exciting. The film keeps you in a state of alertness throughout and there were few moments when I wasn’t intrigued by what was on the screen, or fascinated to see what would come next. In particular, the portrait of a suburban childhood that the film offers is piercingly evocative. The sequence depicting the O’Brien sons' birth and growth is brilliantly sustained: Malick taps into something archetypal here, so that these scenes feel like our memories. In addition the performances that the director gets from the young actors who play the O’Brien boys - in particular, from Hunter McCracken as the young version of the Penn character - are simply superb. And just occasionally the philosophical wittering, complemented by the images, is effective: an early musing on grace and nature is a case in point.
Malick overplays his hand with a grandiose climax that doesn’t provide the emotional pay-off that it should; it’s one of several occasions in which you may feel that a simpler, more restrained approach would have benefited him here. This is a movie that almost seems calculated to infuriate as many people as it beguiles, and its ratio of profundity to pomposity will be very much up to the individual viewer to determine. But passages of indisputably awesome beauty make The Tree of Life more than worth the climb.