It was already one of the most highly-awaited movies of the year among film buffs, and upon receiving the mother of all cinematic honors, anticipation really skyrocketed. But if you want my opinion,* Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life would have worked infinitely better as an impressionistic painting, or perhaps a modern interpretive dance, considering I usually walk away from those feeling the same jumble of awe, confusion, frustration, and intellectual inadequacy that I experienced upon watching this film.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning--which, as it turns out, Tree takes both seriously and extremely literally, devoting almost the entire first hour to chronicling the earth’s evolution, complete with asteroid attacks, spewing volcanoes, amoebic clusters and the occasional stingray. The images are absolutely breathtaking--but really, if I wanted spectacular visuals of our planet’s natural phenomena, I would have stayed at home and watched a National Geographic special. To put the absolute kiss of death on it (pun intended), the entire sequence is devoid of dialogue save for an initial, whispered voiceover of an excerpt from the Book of Job, in which God responds to Job’s grievances of suffering by asking, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” It is immediately obvious, then, that there is a solid spiritual undertone to the film, but unless you’re familiar with Biblical passages**, it is difficult to feel anything but exasperation at failing to grasp its value, or its relation to the story that follows.
Only after this prolonged, thoroughly perplexing display of our planet’s ecological development and its accompanying existential questions does the actual dramatic portion of the program begin--and even then, it is interspersed with sporadic throwbacks to the whole evolution thing, not to mention more disembodied, whispered philosophical queries. Abruptly, we are transported a few centuries forward, where the parents of the O’Brien family learn of the untimely death of one of their three sons--though we never find out how, where, or why--and spend a few minutes mourning their loss. Barely is there a moment to digest that before we are propelled even further into the future, where, all grown up and working as an architect in an unnamed city, oldest son Jack (Sean Penn, in a cameo-style role I am still scratching my head as to why he accepted) remains troubled--yet it is unclear, due to lack of any expository dialogue or other form of elucidation, whether this is because he is plagued by his problematic childhood, his brother’s untimely demise, or some other unexplained dilemma. Penn barely gets fifteen full minutes of screen time, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that fourteen of them are spent in what appears to be a constant state of grave solemnity or distress as he rides up and down the elevator of an airy skyscraper.
Now back in mid-1950s Texas, we witness the O’Brien parents’ drastically divergent yet equally problematic relationships with their children, most notably the complex effects of the patriarch’s (Brad Pitt) disciplinarian attitude on a young Jack (Hunter McCracken in a rather emotionless performance). In a stab at reconciliation (or perhaps a final discouraging blow to our attempts at comprehension), the concluding moments*** depict an afterlife of sorts in which adult-Jack, his brothers, parents, and a slew of others who made fleeting appearances throughout the movie gather at a beach (or is it a desert?). From the abundant smiling and hugging-in-slow-motion going on in this celestial scene, we can presume that everyone actually loves each other and all is well with the world.
If that summary seems like a chaotic ramble, the reason is that the film itself is equally inarticulate. Abstract storytelling, nonlinear chronology, and otherworldly aesthetics can be intriguing, exciting, and refreshing. However, Malick seems so absorbed with pursuing a personal sense of truth-seeking or creative fulfillment that he doesn’t bother to bring the disjointed elements of his elaborate opus into a remotely cohesive final product for his audience; we are left unable to reciprocate even with respectful appreciation, if not absolute adoration. While ambiguity is an effective device if used cleverly, Tree leaves so much to interpretation, urges so much fruitless contemplation, and includes so many ethereal shots of trees and skies and planets that could signify anything until ultimately, ironically, they signify nothing. It’s excessive, and simultaneously, insufficient. What may have been an earnest attempt at transcendental meditation eventually takes on an air of superiority and patronization, and most unfortunately, results in meaninglessness. At the end, even if the family drama resonates with us on some level, it loses impact due to the film’s failure to offer an affecting connection between its narrative and artistic dimensions.
That said, Tree is not completely uninspiring. One would be hard-pressed to identify another film quite like this, so as baffling as it is, it merits points for originality. And Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, from the cosmic explosions to the dreamlike ending, really is stunning. Brad Pitt is brilliant as the hardened, war vet father employing the tough-love approach to parenting and symbolizing the unforgiving temperament of “nature” in opposition to on-screen wife Jessica Chastain’s gentler, angelic, almost naive embodiment of “grace”--two concepts raised by the whispered monologue at the onset of the movie. However, it is difficult to get past the fact that this film is slow. As in, really slow. As in, painfully, squirming-in-your-seat, start-thinking-about-when-to-schedule-your-next-dentist-appointment slow.****
Malick’s intricate, enigmatic films of the past (The Thin Red Line, Badlands) have typically split audience and critic opinions, but this latest offering may create the biggest rift yet. For some patient, open-minded individuals, it will be a sublime work of poetry. But for what I fear will be the majority of the general audience, Tree is a pretentious load of garbage, an overly self-indulgent work that takes the liberties of profundity a few frames too far, producing a beautiful but epic disappointment.
*which I'm assuming you do, otherwise you wouldn't be here.
**which I am not in the least. That little tidbit, I admit, was researched post-movie. But I had you fooled for a second, didn't I?
***Don't worry, this is not a spoiler--that would imply that there was actually something worthy of spoiling.
****Or, as my handsome date demonstrated, shamelessly-seize-the-opportunity-for-a-catnap slow.