I can think of very few movies that have been more anticipated by myself and the film community than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. We say that a lot of movies like say, The Dark Knight, are hotly anticipated but with projects like that we’re merely anticipating a great time at the theater and not a potential G.O.A.T., but that’s exactly the scope of just how amazing this movie felt like it could be. Malick’s films are always hotly anticipated given his slow output, but there was an added level of mystery to this project that trumped the anticipation for his previous work. In the six years between the release of this and his last film, the excellent variation on the Pocahontas story The New World, we heard all kinds of strange random rumors involving everything from lyric poetry to minotaurs and while we were never quite sure what the film would end up being we knew it was going to be something major. When the film won the Palm D’or at the Cannes film festival it only added to its luster, and hot off that victory it finally found its way into limited American release.
How to describe this movie? Anyone familiar with Terrence Malick’s work will probably have some idea of what to expect, but this is operating on a much more abstract level. As non-narrative and dreamlike as his previous films could get, they did still have a clear story on a macro level; Badlands was about a couple on the run, The Thin Red Line was about a World War II battle, and The New World was about the Pocahontas story. I suppose you could theoretically sum this movie up in similar sentences, but that would be even more deceptive. This really isn’t a “story,” it’s a meditation, the film equivalent of poetry rather than prose. I don’t think you can really “spoil” the movie as such, but for the purposes of this writing I’m not holding back in that regard.
The film (sort of) revolves around the O’Briens, a family living in suburban Texas, and the film opens on a moment of tragedy for the family when the mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram informing her that her nineteen year old son has been killed (presumably in Vietnam). It then flashes forward some fifteen or twenty years and we see Jack (Sean Penn), the brother of that fallen son who’s become an architect living in a vast metropolis. Don’t get too used to seeing Sean Penn though, because he’s only really in the movie for something like ten minutes. Soon Jack begins reminiscing about his past. Now most movies would then flash straight back to the guy’s childhood, but this one opts to instead flash back all the way to the dawn of time, which to my knowledge is the longest flashback in cinema history. We then see the entirety Earth’s origins from the Big Bang through the impact of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, before we get back to following the O’Brien family.
Before I try to explain this evolution sequence, I should probably explain Terrence Malick’s style to those who aren’t familiar. Malick is, above all, a visual filmmaker. His movies would not work at all if they were transcribed as novels or plays and the crux of his style is focus. He’ll often tell stories that could otherwise be done conventionally but instead skews the perspective and focuses on things that are often taken for granted in the environment. For example, The Thin Red Line was set during the battle of Guadalcanal and did show a lot of the fighting you’d expect, but often it would cut to shots of the island’s wildlife and scenery that other directors would ignore. This tendency is taken to its extreme in The Tree of Life; with the film’s early evolution sequences force the audience to see humanity (and by extension the story that the film will get around to telling) as the end result of billions of years of slow evolution, a fact that would normally not be dwelled upon to anywhere near these lengths. It’s also just a beautiful sequence rendered through what are (mostly) state of the art visual effects. It is vaguely reminiscent of documentaries/screensavers like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, except that this has an actual point and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
After that “distraction” we begin to follow the O’Brien family starting from Jack’s birth and continuing through a sort of montage through his growth and the births of his two brothers. Malick is firing on all cylinders through these parts and his style seems to have evolved since we’ve last seen it. The editing seems to have sped up a little (though it’s still probably a little slower than the average Hollywood director today) and he uses a lot of very aggressive camera angles, something that I don’t recall being overly present in his other work. This along with the evolutionary sequence made for a powerhouse first hour of the film and I was eager to see where it was going. But then the film starts to focus in on the childhood of Jack and his brothers, and that’s where it started to lose me. For the last hour of this 138 minute film we spend a whole lot of time just watching children play outside, occasionally this is interrupted by moments of tension within the family between the childrens’ strict father and free-spirit mother, but then it goes right back to endless shots of the kids playing and at times the film just seems like the most well produced home-movies ever filmed.
I get that all this is a sort of a continuation of Malick’s attention to the things that most filmmakers take for granted, namely the fact that real domestic drama unfolds over time and is interspersed between mundane bits of daily life, but that doesn’t change the fact that we spend a whole lot of time witnessing a lot of beautifully shot nothingness. None of this is helped by the fact that the O’Brien family turns out to be a rather boring family. That’s probably the biggest difference between this film and Malick’s previous movies which in spite of their stylistic meandering were still at their core about people who lived relatively remarkable lives. The O’Briens on the other hand seem to live a relatively normal life in spite of their domestic strife (which is established as being not at all unusual in that time and place). Yes, the difference between the two parents differing personalities is sort of interesting and yes there’s something kind of beautiful about how Malick depicts nature as a playground for the young, but we’re given unneeded scene after scene establishing these points over and over again.
We’re also left to wonder why this film, which seems to be about human life in its entirety, seems completely disinterested in much of anything other than childhood. Aside from the Sean Penn bookends we stop following Jack when he’s in his early teens, we don’t see his teen years, his education, his entrance into urban life or much of anything about his middle age life aside from the fact that he struggles with modern life. The film also never returns to the point where it began, the death of Jack’s brother; we don’t really see Jack’s response to this or how he copes with it in his formative years. We do see some glimpses of his future, but why should we settle for mere glimpses when the film has dwelled on his childhood in such extreme detail? I feel like some of this stuff might have been filmed and cut out, something that Malick is notorious for doing, and I sort of wish we saw more of this rather than honing in on the whole “idyllic shots of children playing” thing.
At the end of the day I think this is a movie that deserves another viewing. Many have compared the film to 2001: A Space Odyssey and I can see why, it has the same ambition, the same dedication to visual filmmaking, and both films have a similar interest in man’s link to prehistoric times. The first time I saw 2001 I thought it was boring bullshit and I continued to think that until repeated viewings convinced me that it was one of the greatest films if not the greatest film ever made. Over time The Tree of Life may sway me in that direction as well, but after one viewing I’m not sure I can even really call the film a success. It could also be that this simply isn’t a movie that’s going to speak to my experiences. This is after all a film that deals heavily with three things that I have a general distaste for: children, 50s nostalgia, and religion. It’s not the film’s fault if it happens to touch upon things I don’t find particularly interesting, but that isn’t going to change my personal reaction to it. I’d certainly recommend that any true follower of cinema see the film if only to be part of the discussion, and Malick’s visual style alone is worth the price of admission, but unless future viewings convince me otherwise I don’t see myself being one of its champions.
Note: As far as giving this film a star-rating goes; well, movies that function on such a unique level seem to defy the very concept. I’m giving the film three stars, which reflects my overall recommendation of the film as well as my ambivalence about it and its ability to meet its own high standards. That isn’t to say this is an equal movie to something like Thor which I recently gave the same rating to based on the standards of its genre and station.
*** out of Four