Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Run Time: 2 hours 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
There are two schools of thought when it comes to viewing most arthouse films. There's the "this movie changed my life," and the "this movie ruined my life." I hate to go against film student credo, but I tend to fall into the latter category more often than not. Sure, I like myself some Jean-Luc Godard from time to time, but I will always grab American Pie from the stack instead of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's not even a contest.
Maybe it's because my film analysis skills haven't fully developed yet. I will concede that that's a possibility. Or maybe it's because some films are so unbelievably pretentious that their intense need to prove something to themselves chokes out their narrative landscape. Enter The Tree of Life.
Terrence Malick's 2011 film is a remarkable effort that heroically strains to push the envelope and fill itself with Important Meaning, in the process giving itself a hernia.
Actual footage of the universe not giving a crap.
Insofar as The Tree of Life is "about" a story rather than a series of theological ephemera, it is mostly about middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) remembering his boyhood in Waco, Texas (his younger self is played by Hunter McCracken). Living with his brothers under the stern rule of their unloving, taskmaster father (Brad Pitt) and guided by their ethereal, caring mother (Jessica Chastain), they... do some things.
It's basically Boyhood with less narrative drive and more pit stops for quasi-evangelical soliloquies. As the family goes about their daily lives (and exactly how many films do we need about white dudes coming of age in Texas?), the film explores its overarching themes of choosing the path of grace over the path of human nature, the idea of how a loving God could allow bad things to happen to good people, and the motif that Terrence Malick is the goddamn best living director on the planet, no contest, look at him go.
When he's not preening in the mirror, he briefly looks back at the action to shout "More ambiguity!" then retires to his trailer with a bagel, leaving the camera on an extended shot of some rocks, or maybe a mysterious light blob.
OK, fine, maybe I'm being facetious, but still.
I will give this to The Tree of Life: It's one of the most visually ambitious motion pictures I've ever seen. The mostly handheld camera bobs and sways, inhabiting the space of its world with a kinetic urgency and, in one truly memorable moment, peering into a doorway while following the mother down the hallway. In this way, the camera adds meaning to the actions around it, exploring the world that the characters inhabit rather than necessarily being tethered to them.
Where the power of this style wanes is in the filmmakers' frequent use of jump cuts to the same angle, which assuredly hold some private meaning to Malick himself, but mostly look like they're feebly trying to disguise a lack of decent coverage. The frequent cuts to black also contribute to the film's jittery, overwhelmingly distracted aesthetic. It's very challenging cinematography, and a little to drunk on its own sense of artistic purpose to be truly watchable.
And for better or for worse, The Tree of Life explodes the very idea of narrative cinema. Exhaustively extended visual and spiritual symbolism abounds, to the point that the narrative hardly sticks to one's mind for lack of earning itself any decent screentime. In one dangerously long sequence obliquely depicting the creation of life, the film sloughs off its characters, slams Lady Gaga music video aesthetics into a 2001: A Space Odyssey framework, tosses in some Turok-reminiscent CGI dinosaurs, and culminates in what seems to be a bafflingly laborious Planet Earth episode.
Well, at the very least it's the easiest paycheck Brad Pitt has ever gotten.
In one scene, the children jump around in the cloud of gas as a truck sprays DDT up and down the suburban block. Considering that this film is heavily based on Malick's own childhood, this might actually explain a lot of the imagery.
This "pictures first, questions never" style holds a lot of meaning for some people, but I am unfortunately not one of them. It's frequently tedious and occasionally beautiful, but always inscrutable. Jessica Chastain holds her own as character that's more metaphorical construct than human woman, but Sean Penn is utterly wasted in a useless bookending role, and Brad Pitt is no more and no less than what he needs to be.
The Tree of Life might hold the answers of the universe for all I know, but as a piece of narrative cinema, it is bankrupt. If you're the type who like to crack open your skull and pour some trippy arthouse cinema right down your mind hole, go for it. But if you're an American Pie guy/gal like me, skip it.
TL;DR: The Tree of Life is an overlong, overheated arthouse flick with some admittedly beautiful imagery.
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