Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is finally here, but I can hardly believe it exists. I can't believe that a major American film starring two of Hollywood's biggest names can look and feel like this, that it can reject the conventions of cinematic storytelling so comprehensively, and that it can be so intimate on such an immense scale. It is the fifth film Malick has directed in 38 years, and it is simultaneously his most nakedly personal and his most audaciously ambitious piece of work. Throughout The Tree of Life, this extraordinary director is as fascinated and awestruck by the contours of a newborn baby's foot as he is by the creation of the universe itself. All life to Malick is a miracle and a precious gift to be cherished, which is why the sense of loss that exists at the heart of this film resonates in such a devastating manner.
The Tree of Life is a film driven by memories. Sean Penn's Jack O'Brien is a modern-day architect and perhaps the most startling aspect of the film (although there are many) is the sight of sleek, gleaming skyscrapers in a Malick film. It's startling because all of Malick's previous features have taken place in an earlier era, and while he shoots those skyscrapers in the same way he shoots so many trees – always gazing upwards, reaching for what lies beyond our reach – he seems suspicious of these unfamiliar surroundings. We see workmen planting a tree in the middle of this concrete jungle, and Jack reaches out to touch a blade of grass as his thoughts drift back into the past. Jack is a man unable to escape his memories. In particular, he keeps remembering the days of his childhood in 1950's Texas. These memories are occasionally idyllic, sometimes unsettling and often confusing – in short, they reflect the way so many of us recall our childhood.
It's hard to describe the structure of The Tree of Life. At times I did think of other filmmakers, like Andrei Tarkovsky or Terence Davies, but I think a more appropriate reference point would be the writing of Marcel Proust, whose desire to show us how memories are sparked and fold into one another finds a cinematic equivalent here. We experience much of The Tree of Life through the eyes of young Jack (Hunter McCracken) who lives in Waco, Texas with his tough father (Brad Pitt, giving an alternately tyrannical and tender performance), loving mother (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) and two younger brothers (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). The Tree of Life is many things, but above all else I think it is one of the greatest evocations of childhood ever depicted on screen. Malick captures these boys at play in an environment meticulously recreated by Jack Fisk, and he watches as they revel in their freedom to explore their surroundings, with Emmanuel Lubezki's camerawork constantly alive to almost imperceptible changes in tone and mood (this film proves, if proof were needed, that Lubezki is some kind of genius). There is a story to The Tree of Life, but it doesn't play out in the manner we have been conditioned to anticipate. Instead it unfolds as a series of individual moments – often wonderfully serendipitous – that gradually develops an accumulative force through Malick's elliptical editing and imaginative musical choices, and the heartbreaking authenticity of the performances (watch the look on Eppler's face as he tells his older brother "I trust you" during a game of dare). It's hard to discern exactly how autobiographical The Tree of Life is, but many of these scenes feel specific and true in a way that can only be drawn from personal experience.
This aspect of The Tree of Life is so good it would be enough to declare the film as a great work on its own, but Malick is after something bigger here. He has chosen to set his family drama against the backdrop of nothing less than the birth of the universe – which he depicts through images and music in an incredible 15-minute sequence – and the presence, or absence, of God in the lives of the people who pray to him. Like his previous films, The Tree of Life is partly about a loss of innocence, with young Jack's existential anxiety growing as he witnesses death for the first time and becomes increasingly dismayed at the cruelty he sees around him every day. "Who are we to you?" Jack asks of his creator, "Why should I be good if you aren't?" The characters in The Tree of Life are yearning for a connection with God but Malick places them within the context of the universe, reminding us that while our own personal triumphs and tragedies may seem like everything to us, they are simply part of a great continuum that moves inexorably forward with or without us. People come and people go, but life goes on regardless.
The remarkable thing about this blending of the cosmic and the seemingly mundane is how Malick approaches them both in exactly the same manner. He has created a work of art that is truly unlike anything I have ever seen; a film that encompasses the familiar and the unknowable into one singular experience, in which every sequence is infused with the director's benevolent spirit and insatiable curiosity. He is constantly striving to show us something new and to present the world in a way that we haven't seen before, and The Tree of Life feels like a kind of apotheosis for Malick, whose increasingly idiosyncratic approach to storytelling and steadily expanding vision has seen him reinvent cinematic grammar with each new film.
Does that make The Tree of Life sound like hard work? That's not my intention. It may be challenging in its construction but it's universal in its emotional reach and in the truths it tries to express. It's the kind of film that gets inside your heart and mind and stays there, with its bottomless mysteries and ambiguities continually provoking further thought. How you react to The Tree of Life will depend on your upbringing, your faith and your ideas about cinematic art; each person will find something in the film that speaks to them alone and it's the type of film that will change as you change, and as you bring your own life experiences to subsequent viewings. A week after seeing Malick's latest masterpiece I'm finding it hard to shake it from my thoughts and I feel I've barely scratched the surface of the movie. It is the stuff of life itself, and I desperately need to see it again.