Article/ The Tree of Life: Malick’s New World

Terrence Malick returns with a project that has taken him three decades. It is the culmination of a unique view of the world

By Hannah Patterson

The arrival of a new Terrence Malick film is a major event. With it, we know that we’re going to be witness to something unique: a truly cinematic, deeply philosophical experience. His latest, The Tree of Life, comes with the extra frisson of having won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, attracting rave reviews for Brad Pitt’s career-defining performance, which has only intensified audiences’ sense of anticipation.

Since his 1973 debut Badlands, Malick has mined his own cinematic seam. A director working within the Hollywood studio system, when it comes to style he has an unusually European sensibility. Painted on big, broad canvasses, though often profoundly intimate, his films are replete with mesmerising imagery, accompanied by rich soundtracks and hypnotic voice-overs. Lyrical and poetic, they tend to eschew conventional narrative and plotting in favour of ambiguity and opaque character motivations. And yet, the subjects and circumstances of his films are emphatically American, raising the possibility of Utopia, but ending up with corrupted Edens. It’s through his revision of genre that Malick  interrogates that country’s myths and legends.

The New World (2005) went back to question the very notion of what defines America by exploring the ruination of the Native American way of life by the first English settlers. Days of Heaven (1978) turned traditional ideals of the Western genre on their head through its exploration of man’s impotent relationship to nature, against the backdrop of encroaching industrialisation in 1916. The Thin Red Line (1999) tackled the thorny issue of America’s involvement in World War II in Guadalcanal, not as the heroic, ‘Good War’ of Saving Private Ryan, but as an altogether murkier, flawed proposition. Badlands, a road movie loosely based on a real-life killing spree in the 1950s, tapped in to the country’s flailing and uncertain post-war identity, and the rise of celebrity culture amidst casual violence.

The Tree of Life is Malick’s most ambitious project yet. Set in 1950s’ Texas, where the director grew up, its aim is much grander, questioning the very origin of our existence.

It’s no accident that the director’s films often feature questions, whether it’s a soldier in The Thin Red Line who asks “What is this war at the heart of Nature?” or the beginning of The Tree of Life, which opens with a quote of spiritual enquiry from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

The characters that inhabit these landscapes are trying to find meanings within them, on a continual search for a sense of their own identity, and their place in the world; from Linda Manz’s peripatetic hobo in Days of Heaven and Jim Caviziel’s Christ-like soldier in The Thin Red Line, to Sean Penn’s haunted son in The Tree of Life. It’s their constant state of enquiry that makes the films so alive; the important questions that drive them provoking our own existential enquiry. And just as the characters in The Tree of Life continue to grapple with them, so do we on watching it.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

The Tree of Life screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 8 July