The lavish style of director Terrence Malick reaches for the heavens in The Tree of Life, the kind of big budget art film that strikes fear in the hearts of popcorn guzzling punters desperate to avoid flexing any brain muscles when they venture to the cinema.

It is long, slow, humourless, stars a mainstream cast — thus making it more likely to “trick” the general public into buying a ticket — and is the vision of a veteran artiste on a high falutin’ hike to cinematically encapsulate nothing less than the entire gamut of human existence.

The poor fools who rolled in because they saw Brad Pitt’s name on the poster risk falling asleep or going postal. Actually, those who arrived compelled by the hype and hungry for an intellectually nourishing cine-meal — after all, The Tree of Life snared Canne’s top gong, the Palme d’Or and has been greeted warmly by critics — risk the same responses.

The core of the film is a story of a white picket Midwest family in the 50’s and particularly the dynamic between a strict father and his sons. Brad Pitt plays the head of the O’Briens, a stern and imposing figure whose presence causes his three boys to live in perpetual fear and uncertainty.

When Mr O’Brien (as the credits affectionately identify him) goes off to work the kids create mischief in the neighborhood while mum (Jessica Chastain) potters around the house. Prosaic stuff, for sure, but the father/sons dynamic resonate powerfully. The performances — particularly from Pitt and young’un Hunter McCracken, who evokes a thoroughly uneasy resentment for his character’s father  — are bang-on.

But Malick isn’t satisfied with making a powerful and affecting kitchen sink drama. Not by a long shot. Hovering over the The Tree of Life is a misty kaleidoscope of ruminations on life, the universe and everything, replete with representations of the beginning of the world and a post-death spiritual hinterland. There are visions of Aurora Borealis explosions of colour in the sky, giant outer-space forms of light, phallic billows of clouds, saintly voices whispering sweet nothings, even a moment when we visit the dinosaurs for a brief “wazzup?”

Malick’s Kubrick-esque ambition is matched only by his hubris. Shakespeare once wrote of the A word: “by that sin fell the angels” and thus it is so with this tauntingly imperfect film, fattened by grandeur, grounded by imbalance and blaring imperfection.

Presented in stark comparison to the dramatic richness of the suburban family setting, where the characters’ stories play out with beautiful and eerie vividness, Malick’s ‘meaning of life’ cut scenes feel like they were gaffer taped onto the central narrative, broken bits from different, weirder, looser productions, the equivalent of stream of consciousness filmmaking fashioned in the spirit of high-end film school assignments — the kind of scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a David Lynch joint.

Rather than prompting audiences to question the nature of the universe, Malick’s overreaching ruminations will more likely prompt them to wonder why they were included in the first place. There is no justifiable correlation; no tangible link. Meditative, rich, and beautifully shot, The Tree of Life is a bold and botched experiment.

The Tree of Life’s Australian theatrical release date: June 30, 2011.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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