Originally Reviewed – 12/8/2011
Writing reviews can be really difficult, especially when your opinion of a film flies in the face of your critical peers. The Tree of Life, the latest film from director Terrance Malik, won the Palme d’Or, has a respectable 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is almost assured a Best Picture nomination come February. So why didn’t I think it was all that? Why did I glance over to my brother thirty minutes in and mouth, “I can’t do another two hours of this”? Sure, I have my reasons but the real question is if you, the patient reader, should give this film a watch. The answer is a complex one, but let me try an experiment that should help you decide to spend 139 minutes of your life seeing this film.
Please read the following passage:
The morning glinted through the lowered slats of Bill’s Venetian blinds that bright Monday morning, horizontal lines right out of a 40’s film noir. It was a Monday, like the thousand before and the million to come, the beginning of a week drenched in opportunities lost and gained. Sitting on the edge of his queen size bed, Bill stares blankly at the ticking minutes of the dresser clock. Half dressed and already late, he struggles to pull a black sock over his left foot. Nothing. His mind knows he has to but his body refuses, a perpetual conflict of interest between duty and want. Two more minutes tick by and still he sits, bathed in the mid dawn daylight, unable to move. Inert. Motionless. The sounds of the morning rush leak through the window crack, the clock continues its steady march and the light grows brighter. Again Bill tries to pull the sock over his still sleeping foot and fails. Hands won’t move, muscles won’t tighten. The clock cries out a final digital squeal as the last tap of the snooze bar expires. Jerking to life, Bill tries one more time to secure the sock. Grip, pull and success! His socks are on, the day is in motion and, whether he likes it or not, Bill is officially dressed.
If you read the above passage and thought, “Wow, what an interesting depiction of getting dressed to go someplace he doesn’t want to go”, congratulations. You will love The Tree Of Life.
However, if you got halfway through it and said, “What a load of crap. He’s putting his socks on. Get to the point!”, congratulations. You will despise The Tree Of Life.
Of course, you could have said, “Sure it’s pretty and all, but he’s just putting a sock on. I see there’s some sort of subtext there but I could have done without the overdramatic writing”. If you did, congratulations. You, like me, will find the Tree of Life artistic yet pretentious, a frustrating mix of complex ideas rolled around in so much arthouse fluff, the message gets hopelessly lost.
The crux of the story lies in the recollections of Jack, a lost soul in the modern world who thinks back on his 1950’s childhood. Being a Midwestern boy was tough for young Jack. With a stoic yet stern father (Brad Pitt) and a mother teetering in her beliefs (Jessica Chastain), Jack found himself torn between duty and rebellion. Much of the film is told through the sepia toned reenactments of Jack’s childhood where we watch his growth from boy to confused adolescent and it’s in this middle part where we actually get some of the best stuff in the movie. Young Jack is played very well by first timer Hunter McCracken and you really get a sense of his internal struggle, a big theme in the film. Everybody is struggling with issues of faith, life and direction, creating a mood that’s unfocused yet tense enough to pull you through. Chastian is quite good as the mother but Pitt is his usual average self, playing the gruff disciplinarian as decently as one could expect. Sorry kids, but aside from Fight Club and maybe A River Runs Through It, Brad Pitt is not a good actor. His charm lies in his personality and when that gets muted, much like it does here, the whole experiences come off very blah. As for Sean Penn, who plays the older Jack, he says about five words and has about ten minutes of screen time. Enough said.
Luckily for filmgoers, the film isn’t so much about the acting as it about the spectacle, and this is where most of the derision lies. Make no mistake, Terrance Malik is an artist of the highest order. The main storyline is bookended with a complex series of esoteric flares, swaths and images, all designed to evoke an emotional response. These scenes are admittedly stunning to look at and, much like a living painting, conjures up powerful feelings and emotions. Too bad it simply doesn’t work. Many people have compared this film to 2001: A Space Odyssey and they’re not half wrong, especially considering the man who did the visual effects for that landmark film, Douglas Trumbull, came out of retirement to contribute to Tree of Life. While the look of the two movies may be similar, there is one glaring difference, a difference that makes 2001 a classic and Tree Of Life a missed opportunity.
In 2001, things happen.
In Kubrick’s film, the spacecraft dance whimsically to the Blue Danube. Why? Because they are orbiting a planet. The pod crawls out of the space dock to fix the radio dish. Yeah, it takes a mind numbingly long time to get there, but lo and behold! Something is occurring! The spaceship slowly lowers itself into the dock of the station. “For God’s sake, get there already”, I scream but at least, at the very minimum, the thing is landing. Eventually, the cursed spacecraft will hit the ground and we’ll move on. Malik’s error is that in midst of the light bending, mind warping madness, nothing is happening. No story is being told, no plot is being driven forward, no ideas are being exchanged. Instead, Malik expects us to conjure our own feelings from the ether and while that can work to a point, eventually you need to start telling us a story. Malik gets so wrapped up in his esoteric themes of worlds being born and destroyed, he forgets we’re not in his head and forgets to simply tell a tale. Yes, we start to get something going thirty minutes in but by then it’s too late. We’re already dazed and confused, high on a trip of light bursts and dinosaurs, we’re out of the movie, either stuck in our own heads or bored out of them. Shame to, as if he had just told the story, the film would have had the exact same impact.
Now, I’m sure I’m going to get my share of detractors on this review. Comments like, “You just didn’t get it” or “You’re too brainwashed by the Hollywood system” will come down the pike and that’s expected. Let me say again, Terrance Malik has a lot to say about the world and he does his best to do so in The Tree of Life. Faith, belief, and indecision are all powerful topics and they are all nicely touched upon in the main arc of the film. However, much like the crazy guy on the six train who babbles about how Jesus is a cat, Malik doesn’t know exactly how to synthesize his thoughts and instead takes us on an arduous journey through the surreal with diminishing returns. To answer my question from the beginning of the review, the one where I ask if you should see this or not, the answer is yes. If you are on this site, commenting on reviews, you are a film fan and every film fan should see this movie. There is some stunning cinematography, there are a couple of very good performances and the underlying story is a simple yet evocative one. Just be prepared to grit your teeth a bit at a director who reached for a question that exceeded his grasp, leaving a film that is just as annoying as it beautiful.
Score – 60%