I’ve not seen any of Terrence Malick‘s other films, but am told they are very good. I’m a tiny bit wary of auteur cinema, even if there are plenty of examples of so-called highbrow films which impressed me – Dogville, Solaris, The Royal Tenenbaums (although I’m not sure anything with Owen Wilson counts), The Seventh Seal, Don’t look now, The Third Man, Blauer Engel, La Belle et la Bete, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive.
Anyway, enough about arty movies in general. Tree of Life is the new movie by Terrence Malick, with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. It is a family drama set in Waco, Texas, between the 1940s and the present day, and combines this with a long introductory analogy of the origins of life on earth. I couldn’t quite decide whether showing some dinosaurs to illustrate how trivial human life is was astoundingly pretentious, or a rather brilliant joke, a little bit like seeing how many song titles you can drop into an interview without anyone noticing – “I know, I’m going to make a movie about Christian values, but I’m going to make quite sure the creationists can’t use it for their purposes, and if I do that by constructing amazing shots of the solar system and prehistoric life, I’m in with a shout for a special effects Oscar as well”.
Much as I want to be cynical about the ridiculous cliches, all of which are biblical themes (the prodigal son, strength in suffering, sacrifice of innocent life, coveting your neigbour’s house), I can’t. The sadness of family life, caused by the father’s unrequited quest for meaning, is too real and too often true. He is a constantly angry, hypocritical, frustrated man who wants his sons to fulfil his dreams and avoid what he perceives as his failure to achieve anything. He treats his family as his own personal fiefdom because it’s the only sphere of his life he can exert total control over. It’s a massive cliche, and it’s so very often true. He plays Brahms’ Hungarian Dances incessantly to his small children, and wanders about his house in American suburbia as if he were a bohemian artist, not the foreman in a local factory.
The child is very successful, but he’ll never make his father happy. I left feeling completely deflated, as I couldn’t help thinking (as I’m sure half the audience was) about the parallels to my own family, and sadness about the past. I hate regret and resentment, it is so pointless.