The Tree of Life: Part Maddening, Part Genius, All Important

I saw The Tree of Life two weeks ago and didn’t know what to write. I figured I would let it marinate, talk about it to some friends, and see what happened when it went wider to the general public. I went back and forth, from bewilderment to admiration to frustration to dismissal, and now I’m back at admiration. It’s not perfect– in fact, the Sean Penn section of the film is downright upsetting how New Agey and hollow it feels, and considering that portion must work in order for the movie’s climax to merit an emotional reaction, the movie as a whole doesn’t ever become a cohesive entity. Its imagery has stuck with me, its main section of the story is executed wonderfully, and even the now-infamous “creation of the universe” tangent works. But none of those reasons are why it’s important to see The Tree of Life– The Tree of Life is a must-see for another reason entirely.

The film begins with two parents, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), discovering their middle child has died. We zoom all the way to– that’s right– the creation of the universe. We spend twenty minutes or so watching stars and planets form, cells and jellyfish and fish crawling from the primordial ooze onto the earth’s surface. We watch an interaction between two dinosaurs, where one is suffering and the other chooses to not kill it… mercy or cruelty? We then go to the 1950s, where Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien have their three children, and we watch all of these developments primarily through the eyes of Jack (Hunter McCracken). Life is a whirlwind of imagery, from playing outside to sensing darkness in the interactions of adults from a distance. The brothers grow; Mr. O’Brien– never given a first name, as we only know him through the child’s eyes– seems to favor the middle child, who enjoys music as he does, and is extremely tough on Jack, the oldest. We also get flashes to Jack as an adult (Sean Penn), where he works in a big corporate building and remembers the death of his younger brother.

Few directors if any can capture through imagery the sense memory that Malick achieves in the 1950 portion of this film. Weeks after seeing it, images stick in my head. Running through a truck spraying DDT. Seeing adults put a man in a police car as your parents usher you away. Sneaking into a stranger’s house and hiding what you stole. Suffering through a hot church service. Kissing your brother and watching him wipe the kiss away with anger. These are moments that are indelible, and this is the portion of the film that captures greatness if any of it does. Hunter McCracken gives one of the best performances of the year thus far, suggesting a grade-school Michael Shannon in his performance. Brad Pitt has never been better and more understated– normally in drama he has a flair for the hammy, but here he plays his cards close to the chest, and Malick’s material has brought out the best in him. Jessica Chastain has the least of the three main roles, but her warmth shines through in her performance.

If the imagery is so strong, why then does Malick require voiceover? I realize he’s going for the effect of a prayer, but everything is really spelled out for the audience. A perceptive audience should be able to gather from the quote from Job at the beginning that the film is about the questioning of God’s intentions or even existence on Earth when people need him. Why then is the frequent narration necessary? Additionally, the narration doesn’t clear up anything about the Sean Penn portion of the film, where he looks sad a lot and then encounters… the after life? Memories from his childhood? A literal or figurative representation of the important figures who shaped who he is today? It’s so New Age and low-budget that it’s hard to decipher the intentions of its existence in the film and even harder to care. Penn adds absolutely nothing to this character, but then again, he’s given basically nothing to play. One wonders whether in a previous incarnation of the script the Adult Jack was given more depth, but instead, we have a contemporary man in a suit moping on screen for 10-15 minutes out of the 2 hour run time, and we don’t know why.

The reason why The Tree of Life is important to see despite these flaws is because so few filmmakers go for home runs anymore. They’ll go for base hits, maybe even get relatively ambitious and go for the ground-rule double. Terrence Malick is one of the last remaining filmmakers who has never been content with a “good film.” He’d rather completely screw up than settle. He’s also one of the last remaining filmmakers who can take a movie this artsy and get it into multiplexes across the country. It’s easy to say that it’s more important that people see films made this year by Dan Rush or Takashi Miike or even Werner Herzog, but these films and these filmmakers don’t make it across the country. They hit a few arthouses sprinkled here and there, but they’ll never get the distribution of Malick’s The Thin Red Line or The New World… and none of them even crossed 250 theaters at once, which The Tree of Life pushed past this weekend. The more people see Tree of Life, the more people will talk about it, the more the studio will believe its critical clout can result in monetary compensation, and the more distribution it will receive.

I’m not saying Malick is the best filmmaker around, or that he’s the most worthy of wide distribution, or even that this film is the best of the year (it’s not, though it’s easily the most ambitious). I’m saying that the idea of directors like Malick getting these passes to make ambitious art and get it into theaters across the country is important. This is a man who doesn’t like to hear himself talk. This is a man who isn’t a studio shill. This is a man who on the set of Badlands beat the hell from his producer with his bare fists. I like the idea that directors like this exist. I like the idea that a kid in Topeka will see Tree of Life somehow, his world will be opened up to different types of art, and it will make him aspire to be a film director one day. I encouraged a few of my high school students to take the drive to DC to see Tree of Life, and those that did seemed to be baffled by it. But isn’t it so much more appealing to leave the theater being baffled by a Malick film’s abundance of ideas than by a Hangover 2 or Green Lantern’s lack of ideas? I think there’s enough genius in this film (why in the world people are walking out on it but no one is walking out of Hangover 2 is utterly beyond me) to merit at least one viewing, one purchase of a ticket, and one discussion afterward with your friends. In a summer full of movies that will be fun and thoughtless, here’s a film you may struggle with that desires to make you more thoughtful. And don’t you dare wait for the DVD– the visuals of the creation of the universe alone makes this without question the must-see-in-theaters movie of the year. In your face, Thor.

~ by russellhainline on June 28, 2011.

4 Responses to “The Tree of Life: Part Maddening, Part Genius, All Important”

  1. Your title says it all… part boring, part brilliant. Still I did love The Tree of Life because of all the things you mentionned above! love your ability to describe and review movies!

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