The cinematic spectacle is born from light. It marks the beginning, a mythologized ‘genesis’ of our dreamy descent into cinema’s imaginary world of myths and magic. Terrence Malick’s enigmatic and award-winning film “The Tree of Life” (2011) opens with just such a creational philosophy, as a flickering flame of warm light (or “yolk-coloured blob” – in the words of Variety’s Robert Koehler) pulsates and entrances in the black abyss of the screen’s frame. Such mystifying images are littered throughout Malick’s dreamy opus, revealing this contemporary auteur’s deeply personal visions and cinematic contemplations on family, philosophy and the meaning of life.
In “The Tree of Life” we are introduced to Jack O’ Brien (played by Sean Penn), a middle-aged modern man who is pulled from his current life as successful architect by the anniversary of the death of one of his brothers. His wife is sympathetic to his distress, and quietly supports him during his time of personal suffering. At work, Jack is unable to focus and expresses as much to his managers, explaining to them the personal cause of his loss of productivity. Jack is today’s modern man, struggling to grasp any spiritual strings that are tethered to his current reality. Like Dante, he must descend and undertake a great journey for his spiritual salvation. After having seen Jack struggling as an adult the film hypnotizes us with a gorgeous ‘creational sequence’, stunning visual images of universe and life coming into being. Malick slows that process down on Jack’s childhood, and from here we allowed to watch key moments, events, and emotions of his formative years as a young boy.
The Cannes Film Festival is considered to be one of, if not the, most prestigious film award competitions held each year. This invitation-only event celebrates outstanding artistic quality and cinematic achievements and, in 2011, it bestowed its highest honour, the Palme d’Or (or ‘Golden Palm’), to Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. This, the American director’s fifth feature, has been described as maddeningly Delphic, with critics and viewers alike both enchanted and befuddled by Malick’s resplendent cinematic dream-scape and spirited poetic presentation.
Despite the film’s critical accolades and general popularity, The Tree of Life has also been repeatedly labelled as pretentious as Malick’s “new hyper reverie”, in the words of the American film critic Michael Atkinson presents the “spectacle of a man gone deep-sea diving in his own navel”. Many have commented that Malick’s film is perhaps too abstract and, as awe-inspiring as it is, it can at times be equally irksome and exhausting. Such polarized reactions and criticisms of the film’s expressive visual content speaks to a film that few are likely to come away harbouring apathetic memories.
The Tree of Life is an openly spiritual, intellectual, and poetic cinematic experience. It may seem rigidly theological at a quick glance, but the film actually draws from a fascinating and impressively large collection of myths, religions, and other spiritual contemplations. A disturbing many would claim this as excessively pretentiousness piece, but as a contemporary auteur, Malick’s The Tree of Life can be considered his Magnum opus – the alchemists’ ‘great work’.
– C.J. Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org)