The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)


!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

The two films Terrence Malick made in the ’70s are untouchable — high, witty, and personal cinematic art with a refreshing illusion of naturalism, of things falling together, and of intangible romance. I’m sorry to say that The Tree of Life nails down a suspicion I had that he should’ve stayed in his decades-long, secluded retirement. It seems the work he’s completed since his 1998 return has been concerned primarily with trying with considerable strain to duplicate or at least approach that same sense of beauty and the sublime. It just isn’t there anymore, and when you swing for something like Days of Heaven and miss, there are few things more disruptive and embarrassing to look at.

Some will look at The Tree of Life and see great profundity; it certainly encourages that, by design. The somewhat basic and quite Malickian story begins with the announcement of a young man’s death impacting his parents (Brad Pitt doing his best Tom Hanks, the lost-looking Jessica Chastain); we then flash forward to his brother (sneery, leery Sean Penn) wandering around an office building consumed with regret and a constant angsty look on his face, then back again to the boys growing up in Waco in the ’50s. All of this material jams the senses with frenetic editing that, while a departure for Malick, does fit somewhat with his instinctive resistance to pinning things down in a linear story format. No problems with that here, not strictly, even if the tenuous and overwrought nature of the “connections” established do give the entire enterprise a certain flighty pretension.

The more pedestrian element is that all this is framed by the story of the origin and demise of the universe — and oh yes, CGI dinosaurs. People compared it to 2001, quite laughably; I think it’s closer in size and intent to that early sequence in Adaptation when it’s established that existence itself was created so that the Nicolas Cage character could be born. At least that film played the notion as a joke. In Tree of Life, it seems nakedly an attempt to provide a somewhat familiar story with a context and thesis to increase its importance, something that frankly should not be needed. Making it worse still is the nonsensical New Age collage drift to it all, particularly at the ridiculous door-to-the-afterlife finale. This material’s not at all worthy of Malick, no matter how “ambitious” it is, and really the comments that the pretty enough Douglas Trumbull effects scenes amount to a screensaver and the domestic scenes to a perfume, life insurance, or (my favorite) allergy medicine commercial are painfully accurate.

The childhood sequences, unsurprisingly, come closest to giving Malick something to work with, and it says a lot that the poetic weightiness of these often emotionally vague but telling moments weren’t “enough” somehow to operate on their own, that they had to have some lofty nonsense about one white family’s relationship to the Big Bang attached to matter. I seem to remember a simple love triangle being enough for Days of Heaven, but those years are gone now. So are the years when Malick’s use of voiceover could be disarming and touching — now as in The New World, everything sounds intolerably practiced and unreal, with fake and overdramatic “depth.”

In my case, it probably doesn’t help that the general notion behind Tree of Life has something to do with God, Creation, and the Order of Things — three things that simply do not interest me in the least. I might be willing to go along for a story about heavenly power with characters who weren’t empty vessels, Chastain’s especially, and performances that involved more than grimacing and looking off into the distance with fear or wonder. Pitt isn’t bad, nor are the child actors, and this helps the Waco scenes rise above the rest of the material — but still, when Chastain points up into the ether and announces “that’s where God lives,” it made me want to throw up. None of the characters resonate anyway, save the young Hunter McCracken as Penn’s early adolescent counterpart. His eyes reveal something, his unstated feelings and expressions carry a sense of reality. Everyone else is an unresolved screenplay trick — Pitt the tightly wound abuser, Chastain the silent scolding accomplice with few human qualities of her own, the other children, dead one included, just shorthand.

Emanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is as gorgeous as you’d expect; curiously, the most striking and intoxicating scenes visually may be the film’s most pointless in story and performance terms: those in which the camera whips and whirls around while Penn wanders around a disorientingly vast building and metro district. The picture postcard element of the rest, set particularly against the Hallmark card voiceover and the general unwarranted glossiness and artistic overreach of everything, underlines a curious absence of humanism and restraint in Malick’s recent work. It seems to me like all the worst tendencies of American art cinema in one convenient package. And I’m sorry to point to the watch, but seriously? 139 minutes for a movie with so little content is inexcusable. Badlands was 94 minutes, and had more inspiration in any individual scene than this entire sprawling, next-to-unwatchable mess. Really, nothing here but total emptiness.

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