Friday, July 1, 2011

Film Review: "The Tree of Life"

Terrence Malick is often cited as an example of the classic Hollywood auteur, and he does his best to cultivate his eccentric image accordingly. So he does things like listen to Green Day in the editing room, crow about the merits of Zoolander, and, most nostably, disappear for decades at a time. So when it was announced that The Tree of Life, a movie that Malick had been purportedly working on since the 70s, was finally being shot, film buffs reacted with anticipation and the remarkable patience that is required for any Malick endeavor.

Now the director's possible magnum opus is slowly wending its way to a hippie arthouse theater near you, with a marketing campaign by Fox Searchlight stressing how trippy the whole experience is. If you're wondering what this movie is about, you're already asking the wrong question. It's not really "about" anything, but in the same way that a painting or a symphony is not "about" anything - the movie prefers to dwell on themes and recurring images, rather than going through the standard narrative motions.
But, briefly, The Tree of Life spends the bulk of its time showing the lives of three young boys growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1960s. Their father is strict; not abusive, but terrifying to the young boys all the same. Their mother is quiet, submissive, and loving. In between these dreamlike sketches of growing up, we see one of the boys living the modern day, coping with the death of his brother and his relationship with his parents. Oh, and there's the creation of the universe. And dinosaurs. And a bunch of barefoot people on a beach hugging. And a wavy thing of light that may or may not be God. This ain't your standard coming of age story.

It also sounds like a big crock of cinematic pretension. In a way, it is. But The Tree of Life is more accessible than it sounds, partially because Malick does a nice job asserting his central themes in a way that you can't miss them. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there any sense of order to the universe? If you miss these initial questions, Malick holds your hand and asks them again. If the Biblical references still evaded you, even after the tenth reference to the Book of Job, or the fifth footwashing scene, the characters start asking the questions to God directly.
I liked the scenes more where there was a little bit of ambiguity. As breathtaking as it is to watch Malick's rendition of the Big Bang, while disembodied voices ask existential questions, the truly effective parts of the film are the scenes of childhood. The child actors Malick found are amazing at conveying the nauseating mix of innocence, guilt, boredom, happiness, and sexual frustration that comes of being a child on the brink of puberty. Childhood is portrayed as a dream that is slowly ending, a dream populated by both innocent frolics in the summer, and the terrible nightmare that is an enraged parent.
The childhood scenes could have made for a whole movie all by themselves, and it's no surprise that Malick devotes the most time in The Tree of Life to exploring this world. But the characters are also supposed to represent larger themes, and the lives of the children, torn between their submissive, accepting mother and their unbending, I'll-make-a-man-out-of-you father, are supposed to act as a metaphor for the conflict between what one character calls "the way of nature" and "the way of grace" - yielding to the world, or fighting it.
But why are these "universal" stories always about white guys growing up in the 1960s? I realize that this was Malick's own experience, and the details that pepper these scenes must have come from one who lived it. But when the story attempts to grow bigger and encapsulate some sort of grand philosophy, it doesn't really work. During the childhood scenes, it's easy enough to let the movie sweep over you, relax in the soft light and evening glow, let the images transmit an emotional resonance without being overly cerebral. But when the film shifts to the present day, with one of the boys grown up into Sean Penn, it's impossible to not start overthinking things.
And movies like these begin to lose steam when the images on the screen aren't enough, and you begin to think really hard while still in your seat. I don't mind thinking about a movie once I've left the theater, but when The Tree of Life makes the transition from childhood innocence to overly-academic Big Questions about Life, The Universe, and Everything, it loses that which made it great. As I mentioned above, these questions are remarkably unsubtle. Malick wants to make an Important Movie, fine, but the movie seemed almost more important when it was focusing on a boy growing up, and more overly pretentious once the characters start intoning haiku-like prayers to God.
As such, The Tree of Life just sort of sputters to an ending that feels remarkably like New-Age pop philosophy, which is disappointing for a film that felt so deep for the first two hours. And the ending feels insincere, as if Malick asked these important questions and then realized he had to come up with some sort of answer. It carries all the desperation of a student sitting down to a philosophy exam, staring at a blank sheet of paper and realizing that he has ninety minutes to come up with some sort of answer. Malick's questions about the nature of the universe seem like the honest reflections of an artist, but the answers, delivered in pretentious voice-overs and an afterlife-type-thing on some beach that looks like a Hallmark card, seem rushed, forced, and I'm not sure I buy that Malick really believes this is the answer at all. If anything, his vision of Brad Pitt as the domineering father figure is far more full-fledged than his wishy-washy vision of Jessica Chastain as the enigmatic mother.
The Tree of Life aims to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's meant to leave the audience asking what it all means. It succeeds, to a degree. But (dare I say it?) the questions the movie asks are more interesting than the answers it provides. The film is more Koyaanisqatsi than 2001, in that the message of the film is not nearly as interesting as the way in which the film transmits this message. Malick's methods are far more interesting than his themes. Go to The Tree of Life expecting beautiful imagery, flashbacks to childhood, and a few striking scenes - but don't expect to be fulfilled by the answers.