Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Opens locally Friday, June 10th, 2011
Run Time: 2 hours 18 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Written & Directed by Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line)
To say that Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" starts at the beginning, would be an understatement. Malick, as you may or may not know, is an Oscar-nominated director, a visionary expressionist responsible for directing only 5 films over his 38 year career. He is one of those "artsy" directors, not known for his commercial success by any means. Malick's films seem to be painted works of art rather than "Point A to Point B" films like most audience members are accustomed to. His films are meant to be hung on a wall in a museum, while you stare into the abstract and arrive at a hidden meaning, if any, that lies within the canvas.
But if you're the type who looks at a painting and just sees colors, Malick's "The Tree of Life" may be a frustrating pill to swallow. It's not a matter of intelligence...you could be a rocket scientist and you may still miss the point of this cerebral film. I'm not claiming to fully understand it, or even to partially understand it. But watching "The Tree of Life" definitely isn't your ideal "night at the movies," nor is it a film I'd ever care to see again. Like a painting, you kind of nod your head knowingly and tilted to the side, and maybe go "huh" a few times...you appreciate the genious and the complexity even though you don't have a full understanding of the meaning...or even more accurate, you could give a damn to the meaning.
So what the hell am I talking about? "The Tree of Life" is a film that does move forward, it's not as if there is no plot structure whatsoever. Brad Pitt plays a father of a 1950s family. He's a tough, disciplinarian-type of father that must have been typical in the 50s since this is the only type of father ever portrayed in movies or TV from the era. Jessica Chastain is the angelic and sub-serviant wife, and mother of 3 boys. One of the boys, Jack (played by McCracken for most of the fiilm and by Sean Penn in flash-forwards), is at the center of the film, and the relationship between father and son is the pivotal theme.
I should have suspected something when there was a sign at the theatre that said "no refunds will be given for 'The Tree of Life' after the first 20 minutes." It's at that point in the movie where things get truly spiritual and avant garde, or as some would say, confusing and boring. Set to operatic music, I was reminded of "2001: A Space Odyssey" when a large portion of "The Tree of Life" starts to show the creation of the world as we know it. Minutes earlier, we had witnessed a tragic family announcement, and 5 or 10 minutes later, after watching a series of abstract colors and shapes flash on the screen, we witness dinosaurs. These scenes seemingly went on forever, before leading us right up to the 1950s and our family of 5.
Now let me be clear: I don't claim to know what the hell I just watched. But to take a grab at it, the movie has some deeply religous undertones, even though it shows dinosaurs and believes in evolution. To God, so the movie implies, the creation of the universe, or of a species, is no more or less important than the creation of a child by man and wife. God creates, and God destroys. From a Christian standpoint, the relation between Father (God) and Son (Jesus, and us) is complicated and at times doesn't make sense, much like Brad Pitt's 1950s father as viewed by young Jack. The Father (in both cases) is hard, but he loves us. It implies that both perhaps even make mistakes.
Brad Pitt, and most notably Jessica Chastain, are both great, but what Sean Penn is doing in this film is unclear. He worked in Malick's "The Thin Red Line" so this is clearly a favor of sorts...Penn is barely in the film and has but a few lines.
So as the film reaches back to the very beginning, it would not be a giveaway to say that it tries ending at the very end. With such a sensous take on life, and creation, it is too bad that Malick's version of the afterlife represents every other version we've ever seen...a joyous reunion where all is clear...at least for those on screen...as those of us in the audience stare blankly as we await reuniting with loved ones in the theatre lobby.
As art, "The Tree of Life" is a poetic, flowing masterpiece about humanity, and the give and take of nature and grace. It will be loved by critics (I presume), and despised by the masses, as most art should be. The pretentious, critic-y side of me wants to say it was a triumph of human emotion and a spiritual masterpiece. But the rest of me wants to be honest: I did not enjoy the 2-plus hours that I sat waiting for this one to come down to earth. Was anything learned, or gained, and will anybody be moved by the deliberate pace in which the story is told? I think Malick was barking up the wrong tree with this one.
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