The Tree of Life
Acclaimed filmmaker gives us life, the universe and Sean Penn
The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Terrence Malick is an artist of singular abilities. Over the course of his distinguished, nearly 40-year career, he’s directed exactly five films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life). Each one is easily identified as an incredibly languid, highly ruminative period drama. With voice-over narration. And trees. His films are frequently described as “painterly,” in that they are beautifully composed and often consist of very long static shots in which nothing moves. There are few filmmakers I am as impressed with or as bored by.
The Tree of Life—which recently snagged the Palme d’Or award at Cannes—is unmistakably the work of Mr. Malick. Some viewers will praise it as a masterpiece, and they will not be wrong. Others will be bored and confused by the whole pretentious affair, and they won’t be wrong, either.
Tree of Life, like all of Malick’s films, stars a shit-ton of leaves, a hell of a lot of grass and the occasional human being. In this case, it’s Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien (no first name given), the conventionally strict head of a ’50s household. With his meek but nurturing wife (Jessica Chastain, who starred in a few episodes of “Law & Order: Trial by Jury”), Mr. O’Brien brings up three rambunctious boys in postwar, suburban Texas.
Occasionally, the film flashes forward to modern day (Malick’s first cinematic visit to the era, it must be noted). There, we find Sean Penn as the grown-up version of Jack, the eldest O’Brien boy. Adult Jack seems to be laboring under the burden of having had Brad Pitt as a father—but it’s not all that clear what that burden consists of. There’s precious little dialogue in the film. All of the characters narrate their stories in a whispered voiceover that contains various half-formed thoughts, but little concrete information. In fact, it’s difficult to ascertain what Sean Penn is doing in the film at all. He’s in it for about five minutes, doesn’t talk to anyone and isn’t required to do much other than wander around various metaphysical-looking locations with a mopey expression on his face.
Malick appears—on the surface, anyway—to be detailing some sort of abusive family situation and the long-term psychic damage those relationships wreak on family members. Except that Mr. O’Brien isn’t very abusive. He raises his voice occasionally and seems to get mad over stupid little things like dinner-table etiquette, but he never hits anyone or molests anybody. It might have been more dramatic if he did. And it kind of makes you wonder what Malick thought was so remarkable about this particular family dynamic in the first place.
Malick hints at deeper philosophical threads, of course, such as mankind’s ongoing battle between “nature” and “grace.” Can’t say I know what that means, exactly, and the film isn’t very forthcoming. Every time Malick hits on a cohesive snippet of story or character, he gets distracted by some pretty trees. Of the film’s 138 free-form minutes, I’d guess at least 40 are taken up by greenery.
And then there’s the “creation of the entire universe” subplot to deal with. Yup, Malick takes the occasional aside to show us in trippy, CGI detail how the universe was formed, how the stars coalesced, how the Earth cooled out of primordial muck, how the dinosaurs came to be—basically the last 13 billion years in a nutshell. Mix it all up with snippets of family arguments and images of Sean Penn wandering through Death Valley, and you’ve answered the question: What would Koyaanisqatsi look like if it were a dreary family drama?
There are moments, both fleeting and lingering, in The Tree of Life when Malick’s sotto voce observational style captures some evocative images. When he ignores the galaxies swirling like tie-dye and Sean Penn going up and down in elevators for a while, he paints a palpably nostalgic portrait of childhood (or, perhaps, the memory of childhood). In Malick’s world, you eventually become aware of the manner in which characters breathe, the way the breeze rustles across a manicured lawn, the trajectory of dust motes filtering through a shaft of summer sunlight. A Terrence Malick movie is less a style and more a hypnotic state of mind you’ve got to be lulled into.
If you’re an adventurous art-house filmgoer who’s well-versed in Mr. Malick’s oeuvre, then you’re primed and ready to appreciate this latest project. This is pure, uncut art—far more visual symphony than narrative film. But even in the rarified world of Malick, I have to reserve some judgment about this one. Nontraditional narrative is one thing. Lack of dramatic involvement is another entirely. Who are the O’Briens and what the hell is their eschatological problem anyway? It’s hard to shake the feeling that Malick’s just rambling here, and it’s not exactly clear what he’s rambling about. That life is ... life, I guess? That mommies are nice and daddies are mean? That the universe spins on, infinite and eternal, despite our infinitesimal human dramas? Your guess is as good as mine. Or maybe even better.
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