The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) 2011 (NO SPOILERS!!!)

Ahhh Tree of Life; a movie I thought (considering Malick’s work schedule) would be released sometime around my mid fifties if not at all. This is a movie that promised so much: dinosaurs, the creation of life the universe and everything, Sean Penn, dinosaurs…hopefully Sean Penn fighting dinosaurs… I am a big fan of Terrence Malick so I was highly anticipating this movie. So did this live up to the hype? Short answer: no.

I guess my problem with this movie is that of expectations. I suppose you could come back as say that’s my problem and not the filmmakers. Well, I can see that point but I think in this case I think it points to a conflict between what Malick set out to achieve and what he actually did achieve. There are a lot of things about this movie which, on paper, sounds wonderful but in reality doesn’t really work all that well. It doesn’t help I guess when you set out to ponder the reasons for life, the universe, and everything. When you promise me the universe I will be disappointed by anything less.

The movie is non-linear so describing everything that is in this movie is a little difficult. The main narrative is about the family life of the O’Briens. We follow Jack (Hunter McCracken) as he is being raised by his father (played by Brad Pitt) and his mother (played by Jessica Chastain). The movie sets as a premise there are two ways you can live your life: either by forgiveness/love (represented by Grace) or by a kill or be killed attitude (represented by Nature). Both of the parents are in a way the embodiment of those ideals as they try to raise Jack their way. Interspersed in this narrative we get older Jack (Sean Penn) reminiscing about his upbringing and reflections on what life is when Jack’s brother dies (that’s not a spoiler either, that happens upon opening of the film).

So, going back to my discussion of things which sounded cool, I will tackle one area of disappointment which is essentially a fifteen minute section which outlines the creation of the universe and life itself. Yes, I know the idea of Terrence Malick putting dinosaurs in his movie and showing the creation of the Earth itself sounds awesome, but again in reality it is a let down. Mainly because the whole exercise feels completely unnecessary and smacks of ego as it seems like Malick is indulging himself rather than telling a good story. Yeah I know part of this is about asking “where did we come from?” and “why are we here?” but really; was this honestly necessary? This segment felt like a big tangent and was ultimately distracting to the movie as a whole.

Another part which I didn’t like was the entire subplot involving Sean Penn. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sean Penn as an actor and seeing him billed was a selling point for me. But he is given probably a total of ten minutes of screen time in which he just wanders around looking dejected. The man can give powerful emotional performances and you give him one or two lines of dialog!? Again, this is another segment which really doesn’t add anything and brings down the movie overall

My last two points about the creation segment and the Sean Penn segment kind of go together to talk about how poorly the film is meshed together. The whole thing might have worked if you dedicated equal amounts of time to all three concepts: the creation/upbringing of the O’Briens, the autumn/reflection period of Jack’s (Sean Penn) life, and the creation/death of the universe. The three segments are supposed to be weaved together but what ends up happening is the young Jack story gets about 75% storyline with the other two competing for the remaining screen time. That’s what I mean when I say they seem more like tangents or distractions rather than a fully fleshed out theme of the movie.

This culminates in the total dud which is the ending of the film. We have been invested in these characters for over two hours and we are expecting something from the Penn storyline to provide a little bit more reflection of what we have seen. But instead of something profound or grand we get something more chuckle worthy. For someone that was about asking tough questions and thoughtful meditations, we sure degenerated into new age crap pretty quickly. Yeah, I have some issues with what Malick was trying to say, but seeing as how I have only seen it once (and frankly I only plan on seeing this once) I don’t want to go too deep into what he was going for since it is still shrouded in tons of symbolism.

So now that I’ve bitched about this movie for a page I figure I should talk about the things I did like about this film. And there ARE things I did really like about this film. It’s just the reason I spoke so much about the things I disagree with are probably more interesting than the things which frankly go without saying. Do I really need to tell you Terrence Malick shoots a beautiful movie? He does. This movie is gorgeous and that is STILL an understatement. The man can take something which should be boring in the context of a story and turn it into a work of art. This movie is a clinic on what cinematography can do for a film and everyone can recognize he is a master of his craft. There, that is the main reason to see this film if you are going to.

I also did enjoy the main storyline. This is mainly because of the great acting by Pitt, Chastain, and a surprising kid performance by McCracken. Their performances add so much depth and emotion to what is on paper rather dry and poorly written drama. Pitt and Chastain make these parents into humans with depth where I think in the script they are more two dimensional constructs.

Do I recommend this movie? I hate to kind of dodge the question but it depends on you. If you are a Malick fan I think you have already gone out to see it and despite my (or anyone else’s) review. If you have seen Malick and absolutely hate him you will absolutely loathe this film. If you have not heard of Malick I would recommend you either see Thin Red Line or Days of Heaven before you see anything else. If you love good cinematography then you probably might want to rent this. For me as a Malick fan, this was a big disappointment. For as grand as it was in it’s scope, I think this is his weakest effort. The movie is amazing in its visuals but I wish the movie was better in just about everything else. Some reviewer (which I can’t remember for the life of me) made the point that Malick really just makes one movie. Sure the plots are different whether it is about a Bonnie and Clyde couple, a love triangle on a farm, the invasion of Guadalcanal, or the romance between Smith and Pocahontas, Malick overall theme and style doesn’t change at all. While there is something to being the best at a particular thing, it is another to wear out a fad that you yourself created. Now that Tree of Life is over, I want to see something new from Malick. I really don’t care if he wants to make the same movie again and again over the course of his career just so he can stay in his comfort zone. I think this is the point where I jump off the Malick train.  I’ve had my fill.

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