Friday, June 06, 2014

The Tree of Life (2011)

USA, 139 minutes
Director/writer: Terrence Malick
Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Fiona Shaw, Tye Sheridan

The Tree of Life is not a very old movie but it has already won an outsize following among critics and other cineastes, whose open-throated clamor for it (encountered everywhere in the second half of 2011) helped enable it to enter at #6 on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? In fact, the biggest surprise for me about the update to that list which came earlier this year was that The Tree of Life did not push on even higher from there. I still think it could be the one to knock off In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr., and/or Yi Yi, which have owned the 1-2-3 since I've been aware of the list.

But that's horserace talk and beside the point, of course. On many levels it's easy to see how contemporary critics could isolate The Tree of Life for high praise: it's written and directed by the redoubtable Terrence Malick, it's quite stunningly beautiful, and it traffics in a kind of gauzy, ineffable spirituality with Christian overlay that really seems to get people where they live, uplifting like a Sunday service.

I don't want to invoke the "emperor's new clothes" story but I keep seeing telltale indications about The Tree of Life, Malick's fifth of six films since 1973 (at least two of them, Badlands and The Thin Red Line, are personal favorites). In the theater where I saw it in downtown Olympia a hand-printed sign taped to the door informed to the effect that The Tree of Life is long and symbolic, with a story not necessarily intended for straightforward interpretation. "No refunds." I saw another sign like it in a Tacoma art-house when I was there to see something else. I have read many high-handed comments from critics and bloggers equating rejection of The Tree of Life with nothing less than rejection of cinema itself. As the sign implies, you are not looking at it right. It did not help that Roger Ebert gave it a very strong stamp of his imprimatur shortly before he died by putting it on his last submission to the Sight & Sound poll. Somehow, and perhaps yet temporarily, The Tree of Life became one of those things that does not fail. It can only be failed.

So I must admit that, by and large, I have probably failed it. The first time I saw it I loved the explosion of scientific photography in the first 30 or 40 minutes, was occasionally touched by the middle-American story of the Waco family, and wondered why Sean Penn was wandering around muttering to himself. More recently (watching it at home on TV) I thought the scientific photography was more of an empty conceit, was again occasionally moved by the Waco family, and still wondered what Sean Penn was doing. I just don't connect much with this movie. Roger Ebert saw all of his childhood written into it. I recognized evocative elements from growing up, but I kept waiting for something that more or less mattered—on this plane—or a point, or momentum, or some reason to keep watching other than a sign in the lobby that says I can't get a refund.

Am I being obtuse or fatuous here? Probably. That's my first thought whenever I hear someone complain about missing points from movies. Fair enough. For some relief, let me interrupt briefly with words you might find more appropriate, from Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian:
Malick's mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship: it's a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love… This film is not for everyone, and I will admit I am agnostic about the final sequence, which suggests a closure and a redemption nothing else in the film has prepared us for. But this is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that's thinking big. Malick makes an awful lot of other film-makers look timid and negligible by comparison.
Life is a mad, swirling, beautiful, heart-breaking, confusing, unknowable thing that must be taken on its own terms. There is more to this world than mere material sensation. Stop and smell the roses. Enjoy what you have instead of thinking about what you don't have. God will provide. More will be revealed. It's not for us to know all the answers now. We that abideth shall inherit the earth. Now I'm getting it.

On the niggling level, here are specific things I don't like: The incoherent voiceovers, usually whispered. The Christianity compressed into it (and from the start, as the tired old false dichotomy of "the way of nature versus the way of grace" is one of the first things we hear about). Alexandre Desplat's suffocating awful new-age celestial music and its thudding emotional cues. Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien waving at the cloud-scudded sky and telling her boys, "That's where God lives." The view of treetops from the ground looking up (also heavily featured in Malick's previous film The New World, along with tall grass). Sean Penn spinning around and/or the camera spinning around him. In fact, the camera moves altogether too much for me, which has the effect of making the movie feel slippery and distracted. The Oedipal strains are trite. The sound design is so overdone that a title card at the beginning of the DVD advises it should be played loud—and no, that's not in the rock 'n' roll sense. Playing it loud helps you catch all the muttering and bird calls.

It raises the question: Is The Tree of Life so good that it's bad?


  1. I've tended to cut Malick some slack, in the manner of "I respect what he's doing, even if I don't care for it". Tree of Life was the last straw. As I wrote, "I’ve never figured out why I should care about art so insular it closes me out."

  2. That's about where I came down. Still haven't seen To the Wonder.

  3. This one kept me away from To the Wonder. I may see it one day, and I may go back to Tree a second time too. ("Tree" is what I would have derisively referred to The Joshua Tree as 30 years ago--film and album are a good match). Not in a hurry.