Review: Terrence Malick's 'Tree Of Life' reaches for greatness, falls short
This is what happens when we turn our filmmakers into religious figures.
I can barely express how much I adore the first three films by Terrence Malick. I saw "Badlands" for the first time in college, and it was one of those lightning bolt moments for me. I love everything about that film, about his aesthetic sense, about the performances by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I think of that movie, and I think of a dozen little moments, about the use of score, about that stunningly gorgeous light that the entire film is bathed in. "Days Of Heaven" is one I love even more, and that Blu-ray has been played at least three times since I got it. It's a remarkable film, a simple story but a rich and wonderful slice of history captured as if by magic. Again, it's the performances I come back to in that one. Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, and Sam Shepard are all at their very best, and young Linda Manz is so strange, such an unusual narrator, that I find myself wanting to put the film on right now just to hear her voice again. For the longest time, that's all there was, those two movies, and then we finally got a third film out of him, his adaptation of the James Jones novel "The Thin Red Line," which managed to start life as a fairly straight adaption only to become something totally different in the editing room. That year, many people tried to pit "Saving Private Ryan" against "Thin Red Line," but aside from being set during WWII, the two films couldn't be more different. Malick's God's-eye view of men at wartime is a piercing character study and confirmed that even after almost 20 years away from filmmaking, he still maintained a rigid control of every element of what you saw onscreen.
"The New World," however, is a more problematic film for me, and in that movie's weaknesses, I see the seeds that have blossomed in "The Tree Of Life," a beautiful, at times infuriating, undeniably indulgent new effort that comes dangerously close to self-parody at times. There are many moments in this new film that I think are compelling, and the work by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is above reproach, absolutely ravishing. Any random five minutes of the movie looks like a work of overwhelming film art, and taken simply as a visual experience, "The Tree Of Life" is remarkable. But the film makes its thematic points early on, and in surprisingly overt fashion, then spends the next two hours making those same points again and again and again. Considering how much ground the film covers, it has very little to add after making its initial points.
The basic spine of the film has to do with the O'Briens, a family in Texas in the '50s and the battle of wills between a harsh, demanding father (Brad Pitt) and the oldest of his three sons, Jack. At the same time, we also see Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn, grappling with his memories, the death of one of his brothers, and the lessons passed down by his father. While individual moments between the family members are compelling and even harrowing at times, I can't help but feel that the material is, in the end, somewhat thin. With "Badlands," Malick dealt with America's love affair with evil in the media at a time when that subject was still fairly fresh, and so many films since then have taken their cues from the way he dealt with it. Here, his handling of the family dynamic falls into a few basic shapes, repeated many times over the course of the two hours, without ever really illuminating much beyond the idea that Mr. O'Brien is frustrated with his life and determined to push his sons to do better than he did. There are some nice details, like his love of music and his gift for playing, but there aren't enough of those grace notes. I'll be honest… I had to look at the press notes to come up with the name of the family, because they are symbols more than characters, and no one more so than Jessica Chastain as the mother of the family. She's lovely, and there is an ethereal quality to her work, but she exists mainly to either give Brad Pitt disapproving glances or to play with the boys in montage. She never really becomes a person. She might be a very good actor, but I'm not sure based on her work here. I can't be. She doesn't really do anything. And I've written at length about how much I admire Pitt, and how I think he is one of our best movie star actors. He's like a strong character actor wrapped in the skin of a leading man, and I love his eccentricities. Here, though, he feels muted, underplayed to the point of invisibility. One might argue that all of this is simply Jack's memory at work, since Penn does bookend the movie, but that ignores the epic digressions Malick makes to the beginning of the world in one of the loveliest and most frustrating sequences I've ever seen.
Yes, we have dinosaurs. And while I understand that Malick is illustrating what he sees as the two ways through life, the way of grace or the way of nature, I'm not sure I've ever seen as much energy spent to so little effect. The entire section of the film involving the early days of our planet is gorgeous, and the CGI in the sequence is exactly as good as you'd expect from a meticulous perfectionist like Malick. But ultimately… so what? I say this as a fan of experimental cinema, as someone who loves it when people push the boundaries of narrative, and as a fan of Malick's. The time spent on that sequence could easily have been spent fleshing out the family so that I felt something for them. This is, ultimately, a movie of surfaces, and that's where I think Malick is on the verge of becoming a sort of joke on himself. By indulging all of his stylistic flourishes here at the expense of his characters, he has lost track of what made his work great, which was the balance between the two. I love the characters in "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line" just as much as I love the visual work, but here, I don't feel like I got to know any characters. It frustrates and saddens me, and it leaves me less interested in revisiting this one, something I'd never expect from a Terrence Malick movie.
I'm glad he's already got another film shot, and that it was something that came together fairly quickly. Maybe we'll see a more spontaneous Malick in that one. For now, though, while "The Tree Of Life" is gorgeous throughout and even occasionally affecting, it never achieves the transcendence it so desperately chases. By the time the film reaches its final "big moment," which I thought was pretty close to dopey, I found myself genuinely upset. I thought I'd spend my whole morning in a frenzy, digging deeply into the text and subtext of the film, and instead, I find myself hard-pressed to find much more to say about the movie.
For me, this is a pretty crushing disappointment, something that's hard to admit and even harder to write.