Jarret’s note: Thanks to Tim Hoss for the review!
It’s hard to find a more polarizing director than Terrence Malick. The man has made a career out of long, slow moving epics that critics generally love, but general audiences tend to either ignore or flat out hate (movie buffs seem to dig them, though). He has only directed 5 full length features in his long career, starting with the excellent Badlands (1973) and moving on to the critically acclaimed Days of Heaven (1978)and the star studded The Thin Red Line (1998). The Tree of Life is his most complex film yet, and perhaps his most inaccessible. It’s a movie that will test the patience of general film viewers and film buffs, but if you go in with an open mind you may be greatly rewarded. Or you may walk out. Or you may think it’s the most pretentious pile of crap you’ve ever seen. Whatever the case may be, you’re probably going to have a strong opinion on it.
If I had to guess where Malick got the idea for this borderline experimental art film, I’d have to say it was while stoned and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 is an enigma to even the most loyal of Stanly Kubrick fans. Most of them love it, but at the same time I think a lot of them would be hard pressed to explain exactly what the meaning of it is. Everyone has their theory, but there are no right answers. If you’ve seen 2001 and you walked away feeling a bit confused because of it, you’re probably going to have a similar reaction to The Tree of Life. The Tree of Life uses a similar concept, spending an immense amount of time showing us footage of nature and volcanoes and space and underwater and dinosaurs, all of it seemingly unrelated. But much like 2001 settles in on the story of two astronauts in space with a psychotic super computer, The Tree of Life settles on the story of a middle class suburban family in 1950s America. It uses uses the long, prodding, borderline pretentious (or maybe completely pretentious depending on your point of view) National Geographic style footage to somehow set the stage for a family drama about birth, life, death, childhood, parenthood, career, and marriage. Maybe it’s showing that in the natural occurrences of earth, creatures live and die and grow and adapt, and it’s applying that same logic as it examines the seemingly mundane existence of a family of humans. Because afterwell, we’re the only creatures capable of making these types of observations, so it only makes sense that the bulk of the story is focused on human beings.
The movie starts with a light and a whisper. We’re actually introduced to the family very early on, within the first minute or two (in contrast with 2001’s 20 minute ape sequence). Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (who is suddenly showing up everywhere in 2011, between this, The Help, and Taking Shelter…and I think I may be forgetting one) are a married couple living comfortably in the suburbs. They recieve a telegram telling them one of their sons has died in combat. It’s a crippling blow. The movie jumps forward to modern day, showing the oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn, in a glorified cameo) coping with his modern day job and his modern day life, still dealing with the effects of the death of his younger brother. The movie then goes into a psychedelic fit of seemingly random imagery. At this point the audience is going to be tested the most. They can either get through this often stunningly beautiful photography or they can leave. If you can get through it, I promise the movie does settle down into a more traditional film, but if you can’t get through it I can’t really blame you. Regardless, after the the nature portion of the film the movie is focused back on Pitt and his wife, through their introduction to the birth of their children. It is here where the movie depicts almost any facet of life you can think of.
I love Pitt’s character in this. He’s kind of like a not quite as mean Robert De Niro from This Boy’s Life, but he’s still a sonofabitch. But you can see that his intentions are good, even if he is almost unbearably strict. Pitt conveys the stern aspects of the character with such conviction that it’s always surprising when it shows that this guy can actually be a fun dad at times. And it makes the scenes where he shows affection for his children even more emotional. I also love how he pets the children’s hair and pats them like dogs. Speaking of dogs, there are a lot of dogs in this movie. There is never really any focus on them in terms of the story, but every time the kids leave the house there are two or three dogs hanging around in the background. Man and nature, existing together, I guess.
The oldest boy becomes the main character. We see the world through his eyes. We follow his childhood, his relationship with his dad and to a lesser extent his mother. We follow his relationship with his brother. We follow him as he breaks into a neighbor’s house and steals a night gown, and we follow him into the woods as he ditches it in the river because he feels so guilty about it. I have a healthy suspicion that he was going to use it as a jacking tool but became terrified at the thought of being caught with it. Oh yeah, we also follow him when he straps a frog to a firecracker rocket and sends it into the air. But I still liked the guy. His rebellion is in direct correlation with how Pitt is bringing the boys up, I’m sure. I should note that when Pitt isn’t around, the mom character lets them run HOG WILD. Swear to God, HOG WILD. And as soon as he shows back up, it’s back to “Yes sir, no sir, love you sir.” I liked that. Anyhow, it’s young Jack’s movie at this point, and while the focus shifts to Pitt occasionally, it’s still Jack that seems to tie it all together.
A lot has been said about the last act of the movie, and a lot of people are of the opinion that it’s the weakest. My goal here is not to give away the end of the film, and I think it would take more viewings and discussions to comprehend exactly what is going on in that final stretch, but I’ll say I’m in agreement that it’s probably the weakest portion, at least at this point. It’s not even remotely enough to tank the movie or anything like that, but the movie was on a real roll in the 50s storyline, and to me it felt like it kind of lost something when it got all spiritual and symbolic. I mean for a good stretch I forgot this was the same movie that was showing me CGI dinosaurs early on. But it combines the nature and the spiritual aspects toward the end. And at the end, I was left feeling like I had seen a pretty damn good movie. I could also understand someone not enjoying it. I can even understand someone walking out. But if you want to think, if you want to ponder life, if you want to see it all begin and happen and end, The Tree of Life will reward you. But patience is a must, or some ripping good drugs.
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****