Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Squalor (With Some Love): The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is as beautiful and haunting as Terrence Malick’s other masterpieces. But unlike his other films which float expertly between big concepts like god and the meaning of life with careful subtlety, Life throws all that to the curb with mixed results…and dinosaurs.

Life loosely follows the childhood of Jack, primarily focusing on his memories from a particular year or so before resurfacing in present day where he is played as an adult by Sean Penn. There isn’t a real narrative line, but as always, Malick weaves images together seamlessly into an experience that feels like memory itself. The beauty of the film is that you experience this boy’s life as he does and the familiarity of what it was like to be child, to struggle with your parents, to run through grass at dusk, to encounter your first brushes with death and disease. Its purity is striking and effective, bolstered by Malick’s mastery of natural light and cinematography. These moments and the acting (particularly Brad Pitt) are the perfect parts of the film, the moments when it transcends and becomes the movie you’d expect it to be from the title. It’s pure meditation, not entertainment and perhaps not even art.

But Malick doesn’t let the film flow naturally and instead breaks up these moments with heavy-handed pretentious scenes and narration. The ideas are intriguing but their execution is lazy. Each time the film goes into “transcendental metaphysics” mode, Malick falls into the pattern overdone by filmmakers, setting the mood by blasting operatic themes and solemn agnus dei's as his charters whisper “why?” As the film comes to what could have been a perfect climax, the narration and music is even more leading, made worse by Jessica Chastain (Jack’s mother in the film) as her airy angelic voice gives her son to the universe while surrounded by angels. Malick has proven that he knows how to invoke similar emotions without resorting to this kind of melodrama, and it’s disappointing to see him do it here. It’s a hard balance to strike, and in this film Malick appears to have lost the battle.

SPOILER One particular, non-sequitur near the center of the film is Malick’s version of the Big Bang up through the death of the dinosaurs. The imagery of the birth of the universe is gorgeous, the sound editing in particular making the large quakes and explosions of fire on the surface of the earth shake the theater. But then we get the dinosaurs. One dinosaur trots out into a small stream where he finds another one who appears to be dying. The healthier newcomer proceeds to force the head of the other dying dinosaur down into the water until he no longer tries to raise his head. Then the asteroid that we assume ended reptile reign on earth hits, and we return to mid-century suburban Texas. A metaphor for Jack’s troubled relationship with his Father? A sign that we are set-up only to harm each other? A sign that God isn’t watching and doesn’t care? Is it all of these things? Malick is my all time favorite director so really, he can do what he wants. I even loved the swirling bits of color that marked a transition between scenes and may stand for the light of human spirit, memory, and god. I was expecting to defend the dinosaur moment to friends when I first heard about it a few months ago, my Malick loving spear in hand ready to pounce. But in the end, I can’t. Other than a pretty look at the birth of the universe, the scene is wasted in the film and detracts if anything. Throw in the severity of an Orff worthy choir and it just becomes laughable.

Is The Tree of Life all that bad? Not exactly. People in the Malick fan base like yours truly will gain much from his incredible imagery and forgive the other overly lofty parts. But to the uninitiated, I predict they’ll leave the theater confused and bored. You might want to start them on Badlands or The Thin Red Line before you usher them into this one.

1 comment:

  1. It might sound funny but out of all the reviews for The Tree of Life I've seen so far, I like yours the best even though I don't agree with it, because it's the kind of review I really wanted to write before seeing the film.


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