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Poster analysis: The Tree of Life

In the first of a new monthly series on the best and worst film posters on release today, Paul Owen looks at the billboard ad for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life – an unconventional poster that is not quite as unconventional as the film itself

This is the first in what will be a regular series on the most interesting film posters being produced today. I'm planning to mainly concentrate on the most impressive examples, as I did last year with Black Swan, but I'll also share with you some of the worst travesties currently marring the world's buses and bus shelters – such as this grisly and slipshod advert for the largely unsolicited Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts reunion Larry Crowne. Any suggestions for future columns are gratefully welcomed, so please feel free to tell me about any posters you've seen – good or bad – in the comments section below.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is an unusual film, and freelance designer Mark Carroll has in some ways attempted to match this strangeness of form in creating its poster. The poster (above) is made up of four rows of six small stills from the film, divided by two larger ones and the film's title in plain black on white, and is somewhat reminiscent of the advert for The Truman Show, that wonderful and prescient film that correctly predicted the privacy-free age in which we now live.

That poster meticulously built up a picture of star Jim Carrey's face through 1,536 images from his character's past, all colour-washed to form the shape of his face, hair, nose, mouth and so on. In doing so it attempted to sum up Truman's whole life, but the poster for The Tree of Life goes a step further, trying to encompass, in the same way the film does, the entire history of the universe.

It's unconventional, not least in its use of its biggest star, Brad Pitt. The instantly recognisable and bankably attractive features of one of the world's most famous actors are concealed behind a baby's foot and Pitt's own hand. That's a brave move commercially, but in foregrounding the baby it does seem to reflect the way the film is more focused on Pitt's effect on his children's lives than in theirs on his.

Hands are a recurring theme, resulting in some unusual images: a butterfly landing on Jessica Chastain's palm in the top-left corner, a soaped-up boy raising his fists in the bath bottom-left, a much older hand (it is Sean Penn's) reaching calmly for a stream of water on the right-hand side.

Circles figure prominently, too, from an image of the formation of the galaxy, to the space between the tops of trees, to a whirling set of colourful stained-glass windows like a snail's shell, via sunflowers, the sun (three times), and the bodies of unspecified sea creatures.

Penn, looking rangy, thin and handsome, standing below a skyscraper in a dark suit, gets a more traditional showing than Pitt. He has a much smaller role in the film, but his image is linked and made equal with his co-star's by the matching angles of their heads.

It's all very stylishly and tastefully done, although the colours lean too much towards blue and grey, meaning the overall effect is a bit dark and muted. The film is full of beautiful, hypnotic, close-cropped images like the ones chosen here, and there are many others that the poster could have used that might have brightened it up: vast and rippling flocks of birds, Chastain lying in state in a glass coffin in the woods, children dancing happily in clouds of DDT.

The landscape poster is much better than a portrait version that has also been released; anxious to fit in a clutch of glowing reviews, that one ends up much too text-heavy. The images get lost – even the name of the film does, shoehorned uncomfortably into the middle row of stills.

Designer Mark Carroll called The Tree of Life a "personal, thought-provoking masterpiece", and told me: "My only hope was to create a poster that didn't tell the audience what to think, but rather, inspired them to think for themselves, and ask their own questions." But my hunch is that for both the landscape and the portrait version Carroll has watered down what was surely his original vision for the poster (left – click here for full version): a tightly packed array of 70 separate images as opposed to the landscape poster's 26 and the portrait's 30. This original draft comes much closer to conjuring up the strangeness and woozy ambition of the film, which – especially in its first half – has a modernist, stream of consciousness structure reminiscent of James Joyce or William Faulkner and attempts a daring, unconventional manner of storytelling rarely seen in the cinema.

In this original version we slip dizzily and confusedly from place to place and era to era, catching mysterious glimpses of planets, clouds of dust and other, completely abstract, images along the way. Somehow a lot of this has been lost in the final draft. We get no sense, to take the most extreme examples, that a good chunk of the film will be devoted to depicting the formation of the universe, and that in its final minutes The Tree of Life will lurch into a dreamlike religious mysticism. We get no sense that a climactic scene will involve one dinosaur enigmatically standing on another's face. I do pity any poster designer trying to seamlessly work that scene in, although I must say that against all the odds Malick works it into the film pretty well.

Nevertheless, we should thank our lucky stars that some vestige of Carroll's original idea has made it through to the final poster; infinitely worse are these terribly misleading ads that seem to have been produced in a misguided attempt to sell the film to the multiplex. This one is saddled with the meaningless slogan "nothing stands still" and seems to be for a Stephen King-style horror film, while this one is suffused with the happy, nostalgic glow of sentimental pap like A River Runs Through It
and My Girl. I haven't seen these posters up anywhere, but if they do go on general display, then, as Charles Dickens would put it: "result misery". © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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