THE TREE OF LIFE
1/2 (out of 5)
June 10, 2011
Brad Pitt as MR. O’BRIEN
Sean Penn as JACK
Jassica Chastain as MRS. O’BRIEN
Fiona Shaw as GRANDMOTHER
Directed by: Terrence Malick
BY KEVIN CARR
Anyone who spends any time in the film blogosphere has heard plenty of buzz about Terrence Malick’s latest project, “The Tree of Life.” Ever since the trailer dropped late last year, film critics and cinemaphiles have been eagerly awaiting its release. And I don’t want to trample on the joy they take in Malick’s work, but I’m not one of them.
In fact, the only other Terrence Malick film I’ve seen was his plodding and nonsensical take on the Pocahontas legend, “The New World,” and I wasn’t impressed in the least. I hear from his fans that to really appreciate what he does, I have to see his earlier films, and I intend to watch them some day. However, just as a organic foods shopper will want a full body cleanse every few months, I need to let all the remnants and memories of “The Tree of Life” wash out of my system and into oblivion.
Can you tell I wasn’t a fan?
Normally, I begin reviews with a blurb of what the film is about, but it’s nearly impossible to do so with this movie. “The Tree of Life” is Malick’s poetry on the screen. It’s an impressionistic film with little traditional narrative, and it’s meant to be studied and examined.
I get that. I really do. But I don’t think Malick hit the mark on it. A painter doesn’t explain his paintings. An impressionist does not draw little notes on the margins with circles and arrows explaining how things are related. However, Malick can’t resist doing this. He attempts to present characters and emotions without a linear narrative, but mid-way through the movie, he abandons this to hammer home achingly cliche snapshots of the characters’ lives.
There’s an old saying in writing that one must show, not tell. Unfortunately, Malick does both without mercy. Again and again and again. He begins the film with pretentious, whispering narration over a flickering light. In the middle of the movie, he literally has the mother point to the sky and tell her son, “That’s where God lives.” At the end, he throws an entire bag of spiritual cliches at us with walks on the beach and bizarre tantric yoga lessons.
Malick thinks he’s an artist. And that’s his problem. He knows he’s an artist, and he’s wallowing in his own artistic waste.
Does the movie look good? Sure. Is it beautifully shot? Absolutely. Are the more abstract elements visually interesting. They are. In fact, it’s this abstract patchwork of existential imagery that is the most interesting. But sadly, when he finally stops spinning long enough to profile his own characters – linearly narrated or not – they are a let-down. They are either moments of staged joy that look about as authentic as a portrait from Sears, or they’re depressing and awful looks at truly dreadful people.
And then there’s Sean Penn, whose sneering, sourpuss face rips what little sympathy I had for the characters away from the film. This guy’s not a bad actor, but he’s an ugly dude who looks like he just sucked a lemon… and we’re supposed to connect with him. Malick and his keen eye for visuals should have picked up on the fact that he was the last face he needed associated with empathy and understanding.
Sorry, Sean. I know that’s shallow to pick on your looks, but that’s the part you’re playing, and it’s a fair criticism. After all, imagine if Sandra Bernhard had played the role that the rather lovely Jessica Chastain plays. Yikes!
Ultimately, my take on “The Tree of Life” is a scathing one, but for those who adore Malick, you’ll love it. In fact, if you haven’t seen this film yet, just watch the trailer. If you love it, then the hell with what I say. Check out this movie, and it will likely be your top pick of the year. But if you’re like me and you found the trailer to be a smattering of hogwash, then run away and save your money.