The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick, 138 mins (12A)

This is jaw-agape cinema, almost as if God was behind the Steadicam, but Malick's mix of the domestic and cosmic risks being more schlock than awe

There's no doubt whatsoever about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

The latest statement from America's most elusive film-maker – only his fifth feature in 38 years – is like nothing you've ever seen. It's a prodigious work, a magnum opus and then some. Yet you'll have to excuse me if I can't wholeheartedly add my voice to the chorus of praise – nay, of seraphic hosannas – that has greeted the film since Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or.

The Tree of Life is at once cosmic in its amplitude, yet as intimate as a family scrapbook. The seemingly autobiographical picture of life in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s – where the director grew up – is set in the context of the universe's history, no less, from before the Earth's formation to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, and beyond. On a more earthly scale, Malick portrays a couple, the O'Briens (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) and their three sons, following the boys from birth through adolescence to (in the case of oldest son, Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, then by Sean Penn) adulthood.

This is a surprisingly abstract, free-form work. There's a coherent dramatic thread, the key incident being the unexplained death of the middle son (in Vietnam seems a likely bet, although Malick's own brother reportedly killed himself). But, rather than being conventionally narrative, the film offers a loose sprawl of snapshots, of singular moments of family life. You might read the film as an extended reminiscence by architect Jack, as he wanders around the vastness of a sleek modernist complex.

Throughout the film, the O'Brien parents, and Jack as boy and man, are heard in voice-over, proffering their thoughts and sentiments to God. Jack questions the injustice of existence, while his mother posits a founding opposition between nature and grace. Nature is embodied by Jack and his volatile father; while Chastain's ethereal mom seems grace incarnate as she wafts around with her flame-red locks, at one point actually levitating in the garden.

Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous, gravity-free Steadicam photography captures a succession of moments at once ordinary and eloquent. The intimacy of family relations comes alive in a multitude of incidents that often comprise just a single gesture. There's a moment of breathtaking delicacy when toddler Jack reacts with petulant suspicion towards his baby brother; and another in which the father holds the tiny feet of his newborn son. This shot could hardly have failed to elicit ahhs, and yet it comes across as a real revelation: for all the film's freight of cosmological awe, this is the moment at which The Tree of Life most perfectly captures the miraculous strangeness of human existence.

There's a certain Norman Rockwell-style folksiness to all this, but it's given substance by Brad Pitt's commanding presence. Sloughing off his golden-boy sheen, Pitt convinces as a loving but careworn authoritarian, an engineer and sometime musician with great ideals and disappointments, who believes in teaching his sons life's hard-won lessons. The character is a mercurial, sometimes unreadable authority – "our father" as double to "Our Father" – and Pitt carries it off with impressive tender gravity.

In striking, not to say gobsmacking, contrast to the kitchen-sink stuff is the hallucinatory assemblage of cosmological imagery that forms a self-contained son et lumière epic within the film. Its leitmotif is a quivering sheaf of luminescence that could be read either as the divine spirit or as some galvanic spark on the subatomic level. This forms the key note to a delirious fugue of spectacle that takes in seething volcanic flame, billowing nebulae, the emergence of microscopic life, the oceans teeming with spores, spirals and jellyfish. Strangest of all is a CGI sequence, a mini Jurassic Park for theologians, in which one dinosaur is about to kill another, then changes its mind – seemingly, the birth of mercy.

Throughout the film, we get music that matches the images in magnificence – Mahler, Tavener, Berlioz, Holst, Gorecki ... With its overtly religious tenor, The Tree of Life comes across as part cathedral, part symphony. This is film as prayer, a cinematic canticle – and its absolute originality lies in the way that it bridges the cosmic and the domestic, the Big Bang and the back yard.

I can imagine religious coach parties flocking to the film – although American fundamentalists won't hold with Malick's attempt to reconcile divinity with Darwinism. Personally, I'm sceptical of awe in cinema, especially when it's so magisterially orchestrated. I watched with mouth pretty much continually agape, yet I can't quite yield to a film that so insistently declares, "Behold! The glory of Creation!". There's something spiritually coercive about Malick's transcendental maximalism.

There's also a distinct streak of vaporousness, and some outright banality – especially when Penn visits a sort of windswept Beyond, where he and everyone he's ever known get to hug each other on a beach.

Given the dismal lack of vision in contemporary Hollywood, it might seem churlish to cavil at Malick for overdoing it – and, mark you, The Tree of Life seems a mere shrub when you hear he's now planning a six-hour version. But when Malick strives to show us the very origin of being, is he being visionary, or a little presumptuous? I don't mean this morally or religiously, simply that he's prone to overkill – not to say kitsch.

At one point, Jack whispers (to God, presumably), "I want to see what you see" – and that, apparently, is Malick's goal. The Tree of Life doesn't just offer a God's-eye-view of the universe, it aspires to be the film that the deity would make if He wielded a movie camera. But I doubt that even God would have got this crazy, exalted movie financed – for that, you really have to be Terrence Malick.

Next Week:

John Walsh wraps up Harry Potter

Film Choice

Still deeply strange after all these years – Alain Resnais' 1961 masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad returns, with Delphine Seyrig reigning stylish and perplexing at the centre of the maze. Divorce Iranian style is the subject of Berlin Festival prizewinner A Separation, a tense, absorbing domestic drama – and a surprise box-office hit in France.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor