Tree of Life
Tree of Life is, by the actual definition, a pretentious film; meaning that it assumed more meaning in itself than it ever conveyed. While I would normally take the Digital definition of the word as a compliment in this case it is most definitely a criticism. There are hints of depth in the short, staccato-ed sequences but never the content to match, nor is there evidence enough in the ambiguity for us to piece together. What Malick has made here is an admirable enough tone poem; but me, I’m more of an epic man myself.
The film had me on the back-foot from the beginning, not only has it been one of the most hyped movies of the last ten years but its opening section is near fatally flawed; we’re thrown right into the most narratively and emotionally complex part of the story – effectively coming in on the cum shot, to make a crude comparison - and it is delivered to us in such a muddled and mishandled manner that we cannot possibly understand what is going on, let alone care about it and this is mostly due to the films construction, which is also its most defining feature.
Short Shots. A Waterfall. No Scenes. Opera Bellows. No Time for Such Things. Ethereal Light. No Dialogue Neither. Visual Metaphor. Just Whispered Narration. Visual Magic. Nothing deep. The Depths of Space. Nothing Long. History Incarnate. Short Shots. Shorter on Content.
Terrence Malick, who is known most for his love of a lingering lens, for allowing the scenery to set-up the story and for taking his time telling it from there; here takes this style both to its furthest extreme and its furthest opposite. He cuts the shots so quickly – almost as if mimicking the MTV generation of directors in his own maniacal way – that the film ends up like that last paragraph; painted solely from a palette of of small, stabbing strokes the film can only amounts to much the same effect as massively, broad stroke movie-making that we are more accustomed to seeing in out multiplexes. Though whereas those films slather their story loosely so that they can instead focus on other preferred elements – like explosions or the female form – this one does it with no replacement in mind. It seems rushed for the hell of it rather than for the sake of freeing up time; and given the time-frame of the production – the script was started thirty years ago, story-boarding not long after - such a thing is mind-boggling.
Thankfully then the film is virtually born again when ten minutes in the story opens proper. The film’s truly begins back at the beginning of us all, The Big
Bang Whimper, and for a time the story it seeks to tell is that of the universe itself from this point forward. This sequence is an entirely exquisite piece of film-making, the best and most beautiful looking documentary that you are ever likely to see; nebula’s bloom, suns burst and first life is born right in front of our awing eyes. It truly captures what I imagine one would term, the omniscient perspective, making each and every one of us as if a god. Though it is such an incredible sequence it is also one that puts the rest of the film to shame, for of what interest are the follies of a boy or the fantasies of a man once we have been shown something so entirely significant; it’s just about the biggest shift in scope the medium has ever seen.
Though this is nevertheless how the film progresses, once we make it up to the modern day the camera zooms in and we begin to follow the journey of one particular life, juxtaposing a man’s middle-aged maudlin with the childhood from which it stemmed. There is some semblance of story in this section which follows the young family of five: we see the effect of an overbearing, over-disciplined patriarch, we feel the love of an angelic maternal figure, bear witness to the bastardized beauty of brotherhood and generally experience the wit and whimsy shared by the youth of old. This however is not a synopsis as there is no narrative abridgement in my summary, no more to the story than that which I have just recounted and there cannot be thanks to its construction.
I don’t want to go on again about context (see my Transformers review if, for some reason, you do want to read my rant about it) but I will say that the style of this film prevents us from gaining any and thus from caring. There is nothing to grasp onto in the film because everything is just so damn small; it’s akin to attempting a rock climb on a pile of sand. Perhaps this is a part of the message; that everything we experience is in its own way so very tiny to the universe and yet so very big to us. Perhaps, but it doesn’t make for any more enjoyable a film-going experience. I also understand that the style is an attempt at alienating us from the specifics of the piece so that we can better apply it to ourselves; and again this is fine in theory but there comes a point where the picture is somehow trying to elicit sub-text though there is no surface text to be had and this, this is logically problematic.
Though that’s not to say that the film is entirely without message or meaning, just that the voice in which it is trying to speak is not clear enough or plausible enough to truly praise. While you are sitting in the cinema for the little over two hours of the movies running time you will no doubt have a number of interesting thoughts as I myself did. You may wonder about life, about family, about parents, about psychology, about god. You may then go deeper, you may start to wonder whether Brad Pitt’s Father figure is supposed to equal Our Father, who art away on business or if the fact that whenever the Mother cries we always hear it through an exterior shot, usually of a tree, perhaps signifying the ‘pain’ of nature’s path; and these thoughts are interesting but they are overly incomplete and stem more from us than the movie itself. I made a joke similar to this before the screening started, but if you were locked still in a dark room for a little over two-hours with nothing in front of you to see you would most likely think such things anyway (presuming that you are of the audience to see this film and thus already a thinker); so it feels wrong to praise the film for this.
So overall there are some elements to this that I like, but ultimately it just feels like it has made a mess of them. Perhaps the six-hour cut that Malick has confirmed himself to be working on will improve on this, will contain content enough for the messages imported to actually have some meaning. I still have hope for this coming cut because the one we were served too often seemed like it was overly-abridged, like he had taken whole scenes and stories and only ever used from them a single shot. The other option of course is to simply split them; I would very much still like to see The Voyage of Time (The Doco-esque universe shots) as a stand-alone piece one day and the character side of Tree would seemingly be greatly improved by removing any added distractions. This may also allow Malick to actually make sense of Sean Penn’s scenes, the second section of which made the film’s ending almost as bad as its beginning, though he was not to blame delivering a fine enough physical performance.
So in its own way I would say that this film is just a visually impressive as the third Transformers and also just as empty; where that film had the potential to be an amazing actioner this had the potential to be an art-house masterpiece, though it missed by just as much. An admirable tone-poem, a stunning screensaver and a terrific trailer but this, this isn’t a great movie, not yet.