Terrence Malick's first film in six years, the highly anticipated, much speculated upon The Tree of Life, finally arrives in cinemas with some but not all of its mystique removed following its world premiere at Cannes in May. Booing aside (oh, those crazy French!), Malick's visual poem to creation, life and after life – and indeed no less than the meaning of life itself – may or may not meet the expectations of a six-year wait but it's certainly worth experiencing.
But your average cinemagoer shouldn't let the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn fool them into thinking this is a Hollywood film. Much like he did with The Thin Red Line (1998), which returned Malick to the director's chair after a 20 year hiatus, the maverick director places his marquee actors in the service of his creation.
As such, Pitt, as 1950s husband and father Mr. O'Brien, plays second fiddle to child actor and on-screen son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), while Penn (who perhaps as a favour to his Red Line director) has a cursory role playing the adult version of Jack. Penn's sequences top and tail the film in its most ambitious and, to be honest, for me least successful sections.
A plethora of beautiful images and whispered dialogue/prayers opens The Tree of Life – which also covers the creation of the universe from the Big Bang through to those much talked about but briefly glimpsed dinosaurs, before settling down in small town USA, 1950s – while a suggestion of the after life, including a beach and a predominantly white dress code, closes the film.
But it's the middle section which occupies most of the film's 135 minute running time, and it's this section which is the most involving and adopts a more typical, linear narrative structure (though with very little reliance on dialogue or action).
Observing the O'Brien family, which includes two other sons and an angelic mother (played by Jessica Chastain), we glimpse the beauty of the world from the point of view of young Jack; open to the wonders of his surrounds, as encouraged by his mother, but ever mindful of his disciplinarian father who practises a form of tough live on his sons, preparing them for the hardships of a world which crushed his own dreams early on.
Despite a passing resemblance to his Benjamin Button persona, what with O'Brien's glasses and jutted jaw, Pitt gives one of his better performances; suggesting a man with his gestures and facial expressions rather than with his (very few) words. There's already talk of an Oscar nomination but I'd suggest as Supporting Actor rather than Lead if it were to happen, for he's not only supporting McCracken but Malick, too. Let's be honest, in a Malick film, everyone is supporting.
I've seen The Tree of Life twice now and upon my second viewing, without expectation and preconception, found it to be far more emotionally engaging. Others may get it the first time round, or simply won't get it at all. And that's perfectly okay; it certainly won't be for everyone. But I'd urge you to see it and in the cinema, where you can immerse yourself in Malick's vision – a vision like nothing you've seen before.