Image source. Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011.
The story of The Tree of Life is a story of two different movies. The first one: Terrence Malick’s magnum opus, a vast, magnificent reflection on man’s role in the universe and the ephemeral nature of time. This is the version the Cannes Film Festival and all the glowing critics on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic watched. And then there’s the other one: a bunch of pretty pictures that ought to be first picks for your new wallpaper, but definitely not much else. Somehow, that first version didn’t get to the vast majority of people who disliked this movie so intensely that some movie theaters had to remind customers no refunds would be allowed. Perhaps the critics see something most average moviegoers don’t. Or maybe the critics have been spending too much time in their ivory towers, and it’s really as bad as this detractor claims. Personally, I think they both have a point. Malick has definitely thought about what he wants to express. But for the most part, he’s gone a little too far off the deep end for us to really understand what he’s getting at.
Describing the plot of this movie is hard, mainly because there really isn’t one. But there are a few “main threads” that shape the movie’s unfolding. In the first, an architect (Sean Penn) seems to find the hustle-bustle of the impersonal modern world a little too dehumanizing for comfort. In the second, two young boys (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler) grow up under the dictatorial command of their merciless father (Brad Pitt). In the third…well, the universe is formed. This is the large, by-now infamous segment halfway through the film full of beautiful shots of planets forming, dinosaurs roaming, and asteroids hitting the Earth. Depending on whom you ask, either the most profound sequence or the biggest pile of cow manure.
No one should be surprised this is a Terrence Malick film. It has his signature style written all over it: the eerie lack of dialogue, the impressionistic, unearthly cinematography, the prolonged close-ups. And it’s worked before. Take one of his earlier films, Days of Heaven. There, Malick actually succeeded in creating an atmosphere as heavenly and plainly fantastical as the title would suggest. He makes the story of a young couple desperate to survive on the Great Plains a majestic combination of the gritty and the dreamy, a timeless roughness forever captured with the wonders of his camera. But that film worked because we at least had a good idea of what was going on. Thanks to our knowledge of the story arc, we knew why Malick was showing the images he did, so we were able to appreciate the artistic risks he took with the production. In The Tree of Life, Malick, 30 years older and as reclusive as always, gets a little too confident. He places too much faith on the viewer’s ability to sift through the meanderings of his mind, with the result that the film feels well-made but impossible to appreciate fully. He certainly has something to say, but he doesn’t appear to have thought about how other people would try (and fail) to interpret his inner musings.
The one good thing about this movie, however, really is the gorgeous cinematography, the constant redeemer in each and every one of Malick’s works. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki just won three Oscars in a row for a good reason: he knows how to make you drop your jaw in awe. Even if they’re not “real,” the movie’s images of prehistoric Earth *are* impressive. But again, as much as film is all about the power of the moving image, there needs to be something behind it. Otherwise, as this film’s detractors understandably claim, it ain’t much more than a pretty picture for your wall.
So no, The Tree of Life isn’t the complete piece of junk many frustrated viewers have trashed. But neither is it remotely as phenomenal or revolutionary as many critics have claimed. If anything, it’s a well-intentioned attempt to make something thought-provoking, a leap towards the stars that crashed halfway up. Some people may be able to break through and see the message. But personally, I’m with those earnest moviegoers who walk away wondering, “Um…what?” Movies can and ought to be thoughtful. But they’re movies, not the next Critique of Pure Reason. Here’s hoping Malick remembers that.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Running Time: 139 minutes
Produced by: Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick