Rated PG-13 for some thematic material.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn
Written and Directed by: Terrence Malick
Before I even stepped foot into the theater to watch The Tree of Life, I was already nervous about it. I hadn’t responded to the trailer and images as much as my colleagues and peers had, and when it came to Malick, the only movie of his I have seen was The New World and that was years ago (not to mention I nodded out for most of it). Suffice it to say a movie like this, that promises heavy themes and depth, is not really in my wheelhouse. While that is a weakness or not I can’t say, but that was where I stood. Still,Chase Whale from Gordon and the Whale told me that I should see every movie with an open mind no matter what, so I did my best to do so and enter The Tree of Life as a blank slate.
It’s all that more unfortunate that it was all for naught; despite some gorgeous imagery and really strong performances by the main cast, The Tree of Life was a grind to get through. Lacking a real cohesive narrative, choosing to present mood as opposed to a structure, it was 2 hours and 18 minutes of me continuously checking my watch and rolling my eyes with brief moments of “oh, that was interesting” and “that was damn good. DAMN good.” From what I’ve been able to gather, The Tree of Life is supposed to be a meditation of life and death, of human emotion as a whole. That would be great…if I was in film school and was into making things like that. I’m not that kind of moviegoer; I want my shit entertaining and if it also happens to be thoughtful, then that’s great too. The Tree of Life is not entertaining, instead being slow, drawn out, partly pointless, and as much as I hate using the word, pretentious.
The main story of the movie takes place in the 1950′s and follows the O’Brien family, a husband (Brad Pitt) and wife (Jessica Chastain) and their kids (the eldest, Jack, played in child form by the excellent Hunter McCracken). We watch the events unfold through the eyes of Jack, as everyone reacts to a tragedy in their family. Jack is a troubled boy who acts out by breaking windows and other somewhat rebellious methods. He also has a love hate relationship with his parents, especially his father who is domineering, strict, and in some cases physically and verbally abusive. His mother, on the other hand, is a patron saint to the point of where Malick throws in a random scene of her floating around like an angel. I get it dude. As for the plot exactly…well, there really isn’t one per say. It’s really just a journey of a family and all the emotions that go with it, which ranges from interesting to “get on with it already!”
But that’s not the entirety of the movie, not by a long-shot; The Tree of Life also follows adult Jack (Sean Penn) as he works at his job, grimaces, walks around a desert, and makes sullen faces. Honestly, this was completely useless and needed to be cut out. On top of that, Malick also throws in a sort of “history of our universe” documentary complete with shots of the solar system, the Earth slowly forming, and terrible looking CGI dinosaurs doing terribly CGI things. If you thought a dinosaur would be out of place in a Malick movie, well you were right. Luckily most of this is in one giant nugget, when it divulges from the O’Brien plot into all of what I just mentioned, before Malick goes “oh right I’m making a movie, SHIT!” and we get back on track. I’m sure there’s a higher purpose, but I didn’t find it. At least it was pretty to look at.
And that’s the main thing this movie has going for it, being flat out fucking gorgeous. The cinematography is wonderful, even when it’s just the human drama and not the random “remember when a meteor hit Earth LOL” scenes. The Tree of Life also features a host of interesting camera angles and edits that made it very visually appealing so on that level alone it succeeded in keeping my attention. Most of it.
Outside of that, the acting by the three main leads is wonderful. Pitt is great as the father, the tough patriarch reviled by his children (to the point of where Jack prays God kills him) but who’s also got a sweet part of him that just wants to teach them how to be tough in the world. He’s also got an obsession with money and wealth and doing whatever he can to obtain it, although that’s only hinted at and not fully explored since that would be a plot and fuck that shit. Chastain does the heavy load of the monologue-ing (which I’ll get to), and as the mother, she is enthralling but almost too dream-like to seem real. That’s not to mention the fact she skips around and acts like no real human would, even in the 1950′s. Maybe I’m just cynical though, thanks to the Internet. She and Pitt carry the acting part of The Tree of Life very well and even if the movie is too divisive to be nominated for any awards, they deserve consideration come award season. As for Penn…useless and did nothing. Moving on.
The breakout star of The Tree of Life is definitely McCracken as the young Jack. He’s so fucking good it’s hard to put into words but I’ll do my best. He’s so heartbreaking and endearing and I especially dug that he and Pitt both had the protruding outer lip going on to show they were both related and similar to one another. Just a little add-on that I dug. I don’t know what’s the in the water for child actors nowadays, but they seem to continually get better.
All this great acting and cinematography, though, is ultimately wasted on a bland experience that may border on insulting for some people. The Tree of Life is not for everyone in the slightest and will be dividing people left and right with its supporters most likely calling its detractors “philistines” for not understanding it. Despite all of its good, there’s just nothing really going on; it seems like Malick was just fucking around for himself and himself alone and while that’s great for him, it sucks for the rest of us who have to sit through it. I won’t even get into the whole “let’s tell everything through poetic whispery monologues” because frankly it makes my fucking blood boil thinking about it. This is a movie that people I would want to punch in the face would talk about in that holier than thou voice because they love “cinema”; not movies you Neanderthal, CINEMA. The Tree of Life may resonate with some people, but for me, I’m putting it in the “never watch again unless I have to” pile next to, shock, The New World. A Malick fan I will never be.