Movie Preview: The Tree of Life


There are a lot of movie directors you could describe using the word ‘unique’. David Lynch; Francis Ford Coppola; Mike Leigh; Stanley Kubrick; Akira Kurosawa: all these and many more legendary filmmakers take on mythic qualities over time. Whether it’s the calibre of their output or the eccentricity of their personalities which makes them one-of-a-kind, there’s a singularity about many of the world’s great directors. Describing Terrence Malick using such a term, however, is like saying that the sun is hot.

He may have directed just five features, but the Illinois native’s name alone has an aura about it. Perhaps it’s because his films often themselves confront spectral, ethereal themes. Perhaps it’s because he coaxes wonderful performances out of his cast. Perhaps it’s because there was a twenty-year gap between his second film (Badlands) and his third (The Thin Red Line). Or perhaps it’s just because he’s a bit of an oddball. Whichever explanation you choose, it’s fair to say that with every infrequent announcement of a new Terrence Malick film, there’s a buzz, an anticipation, a joy surrounding it.

Yet The Tree of Life seems to exceed the normal hysteria about a Malick motion picture. Coming six years after the somewhat polarising The New World, a relatively brisk break by Malick’s standards, it’s a film whose scope and ideals have seen it compared to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ostensibly a family drama, it encompasses far more than simple suburbia, taking in philosophical questions about life’s meanings and nuances, played out against the backdrop of a man’s memories of his childhood.

The man in question is Sean Penn’s Jack O’Brien, reminiscing about his 1950s youth, his parents – Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain – and brother dealing with the death of the O’Briens’ eldest son. This being Malick, it no doubt looks into the ramifications of death and grief, yet from all reports thus far (it premiered at Cannes and received a limited release in late May ahead of its July 8th release) it seems that The Tree of Life is overwhelmingly concerned with that question which has plagued artists and academics from Socrates to Sartre: why are we here?

If this premise seems pretentious, it’s understandable. The pieces of art trying to answer or explore this question are legion. Novelists, sculptors, filmmakers, musicians: all have tried to grasp the meaning of life. Thus far, it seems, we’re still left holding nothing but air.

Yet if there’s any director who can craft a piece of cinema which confronts this quandary, it’s Terrence Malick. Having made films about exploration, murder and war, he seems well-versed in the tragedies and triumphs, large and small, which help to define the world we inhabit, and what it is humans are actually meant to do.

Regardless of whether The Tree of Life succeeds in this pursuit or not, it’s an essential film whose premise and promise are perhaps unmatched this year.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.