tue 11/08/2020

DVD: The Tree of Life | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Tree of Life

DVD: The Tree of Life

Technically fascinating Terrence Malick film just about transcends spiritual guff

Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' contains one of the most tender and inspired paeans to childhood's spiritedness

Some pretentiousness was inevitable. Any film that sets out to tell the story of the universe (we get the whole caboodle - big bang to eternal blackout - with cameos for dinosaurs, microbes, DNA and even Sean Penn) is I'd say bound, perhaps even required, to sink into the mud of philosophical grandiloquence. 

But to focus on this, or the film's frequent slips into the coffee-table visual language of Anselm Adams (electro-static trees, smoky waterfalls) or the moralising family lectures through which this story of the universe is mediated, would be unfair. For, however familiar or trite the ideas sometimes become, the technical means of achieving them are reminiscent of the best of Vertov or Godard in their freshness.

One of the most original aspects is the sound design. What Malick seems to have realised is that most of life - and much of the way we remember life - is experienced in silence. So, as we follow the lives of the O'Briens in 1950s Texas (led by an incredible trio of boy actors: Hunter McKracker, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan), we catch only snatches of speech. Around this, sound designer Craig Berkey adds layers of found sounds to create the most riveting musique concrète.

Alongside this is an extraordinary restlessness to the camerawork. Shots are short. They flash up and float about, flash up and float about some more. It's as if we were swimming through life. And what we witness on this epic journey (beyond the less than subtle moments in the company of Brad Pitt - Mr O'Brien - in classic oppressive father mode) is often breathtaking: volcanic ash clouds pouring into the sky, DNA zipping through nuclei, even the light of God. 

There's a little too much misanthropy when Malick gets down to analysing O'Brien family dynamics. But then comes along a small visual essay on the dawn of play that absolves him of everything. In quick succession, we see a frog, a cricket, a child in a mask, an arm clutching a football, a chase. Smetana's musical vision of the capering waters of the Danube rises up. In these few images - perhaps lasting a couple of minutes - we see one of the most economical, tender and inspired paeans to childhood's spiritedness. For this sequence alone, The Tree of Life is pretty indispensable viewing.

Malick's visual essay on the dawn of play absolves him of everything

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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