The Tree of Life is one of the films I especially wanted to watch during this month of Best Picture reviews, because I remembered the schism between my fellow movie bloggers when it came out. I had passed the film by — in fact I hadn’t heard of it until the reviews started, which were mostly after its Oscar nomination — and until this week had never seen any film in Terrence Malick’s body of work. I had little idea of what to expect, except that it would be challenging and different, because the reviews from other bloggers seemed almost entirely at odds with each other. Enchanting. Bland. Profound. Pretentious. Moving. Monotonous. Transcendent. Confusing.
A case could be made for any of these terms. It’s most certainly an ambitious film, and Malick should at least be applauded for daring to be different. But I have to say my final take on the film is more inclined to agree with its detractors, though I see definite merits in the film.
The story, if it could be said to have one, is of a young boy named Jack growing up with his parents and two younger brothers. The film introduces Hunter McCracken as Jack, and Sean Penn plays the adult version of him. The film is essentially told in flashback.
Some scenes flash back farther than others.
The scenes of Jack’s youth consist of discrete pieces with little inter-connectivity. It’s essentially a slice-of-life film showing Jack as a boy rather than showing any particular narrative. We see him struggle against the stern upbringing of his father (Brad Pitt), and try to reconcile it with the gentle and almost innocent viewpoint of his mother (Jessica Chastain). This leads to him rebelling against them both, and getting up to youthful acts that hint at a disturbed mindset. This is interleaved with narration from the adult Jack and occasionally his mother, and with scenes of the cosmos or the development of Earth. One can only imagine the reaction of the producers when Malick started submitting budget requests for special effects.
“You want to put what in your family drama?”
Looking at the film with a couple years’ distance from its release, it’s not hard to see where the different viewpoints on it come from. The cosmic/prehistoric/etc scenes are very pretty, and if one really stretches one’s imagination one can see thematic connections, but they aren’t readily apparent and they do interrupt what narrative exists. They are also mostly static; although they are reminiscent of a realistic Fantasia, they lack the dynamic nature of that film. They are at best grace notes to the primary portion of the film, which is the story of Jack… and that story is not especially interesting. Like the pictures of the nebulae, it is virtually static, unmoving. Character growth is at a glacial pace for Jack, and non-existent for anybody else. We see several vignettes of his life growing up, but one is almost indistinguishable from the next. There is a haze over the film, both visually with a soft-focus and emotionally where even scenes of characters shouting are lacking in energy. Although a simple and soft narrative can be pleasing sometimes, it can also be tedious, and this film wears out its welcome about an hour before it ends.
This isn’t helped much by the narration. It inserts philosophical aspects into the film, and is arguably the point of the whole piece. It has some genuinely profound statements, but they are neither as many nor as profound as Terrence Malick appears to think they are. The thoughts it imparts are mostly ones that any mature viewer will have reconciled themselves with in some fashion by the time they are 30… and one rather doubts the likelihood of younger viewers enjoying this film.
I can respect the craftsmanship that went into the film; it is unquestionably a very artistic work, and exceptionally so at that. But it was not a terribly interesting one. It is the sort of film that, being inclined to write a review, I knew I had to write one quickly. By the end of the week I suspect the details may well have faded from memory.