The Tree of Life

Sean Penn’s dazed look fits this long view of 1950s America.

Another decade, another Terrence Malick film. With The Tree of Life coming only six years after The New World, which was separated from The Thin Red Line by seven, this former recluse is in danger of being as dependable as underpowered clockwork, as industrious as a production line manned by snails.

Though some of the grammar of the new picture will be familiar from his past work, such as the voice-over slipping from one actor to another with the fluidity of water passing along a riverbed, The Tree of Life represents a departure for a director already estranged from the usual forms of storytelling in American cinema. As befits a tale told partly from the perspective of a businessman, Jack (Sean Penn), musing silently on his childhood in 1950s Texas, The Tree of Life is structured as a flurry of memories. Some are intangible and sensory; others correspond to that folksy America (kids imitating the town drunk, or frolicking in the smoky residue of a pest-control truck) which formed the backdrop to Badlands (1973).

What is immediately striking is how little there is in the way of actual scenes; most are foreshortened or distilled -- a court case, for example, is reduced to shots of the jury's vacated chairs and a lawyer's comforting hand. Even by Malick's elliptical standards, it is remarkable how fully The Tree of Life is liberated from the rudiments of story construction (cause and effect, pace, suspense). The film's commonest currency is imagery that drifts free from narrative context, such as when the infant Jack is whisked away in the arms of his mother (Jessica Chastain) while a man suffers a fit, or montages that convey mood alone, such as the elation of Jack and his brothers when their goading father (Brad Pitt) is away on business.

The danger in stringing together daisy-chains of handsome imagery (luminously photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki) is that you have entered an arena corrupted by advertising. The crucial difference is that meaning is revealed only gradually in Malick's film. One low-angle shot suggests little on its own, but the repeated positioning of the camera at knee level, tilting upwards, makes even the tiniest children in the film as ennobled and imposing as Easter Island statues.

What the camera is pointing towards becomes clear when Jack's mother opens her arms to the sky and announces: "That's where God lives." When the boys play baseball, the scene is cut together so that we never see who is returning the ball -- it simply drops out of the sky, perfectly pitched by a celestial shortstop. Malick goes in for a couple of conventional eye-of-God shots, those moments when the camera rises on a cherry-picker to provide an omniscient view of the action, but for the most part you sense he finds Him in every angle, not just the grandiose ones.

Malick has always excelled at bridging the momentous and the intimate, which perhaps explains the most audacious gamble taken in The Tree of Life. Roughly 30 minutes in, the film leaves the 1950s and reverses about as far as the rewind button will go, all the way back to the Big Bang. The effect is rather as if Stand By Me had been interrupted by David Attenborough's Life on Earth. This gives way to some hallucinatory nature photography, followed by languid dinosaurs that don't appear to have got the memo about the forthcoming meteor. Viewed exclusively from space, the cause of their annihilation resembles a pebble cast into a lush blue pond, sending ripples across its surface; the cataclysmic is made minuscule.

On first viewing of the film, at least, it feels as though two unconnected ideas have been jerry-rigged together, an impression not quite dispelled by the wondrous image that returns the action to the 1950s: a child swimming out of a flooded underwater bedroom and into the world. But still, you couldn't describe Malick's take on Genesis as a weak link within a stronger work, so much as a tenuous one. Sean Penn, wandering gravely through offices and deserts, comes closest to seeming incongruous, and even he grows into a kind of audience surrogate, with his dazed expression that seems to say: "Now, what did I come in here for?"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.