Is it fair to review a work that functions, as Roger Ebert said in his piece on The Tree of Life, as more of a prayer than a story? Can we measure this intensely personal, individual film with traditional yardsticks?
I believe it is; I believe we can. Some of the positive reviews of The Tree of Life seem defensive to the point of stridency, meeting charges of "but there's no narrative!" with a carpet-bombing of superlatives, and implying between salvos that such an unconventional and daring form of filmic storytelling has no use for bourgeois adjectives like "linear" and "coherent." Well…actually, on the one hand, I agree, in the sense that Malick has his ways of doing things and thinking about stories and connecting (or shuffling) dots, and that peculiar Malickian blend of compulsive control and sticky viscera either hits you or it doesn't, so no review per se is going to change your mind.
But on the other hand, it's possible to understand how Malick operates, to be tolerant of the occasional sweaty lapses into sophomore workshop, to respect -- revere -- his unique sequencing and wait with hands folded for him to arrive inside your head, to say "oy, always with the leaves," but fondly, as you would about a nutty relative…and to think, still, that The Tree of Life doesn't work.
And that's where I'm at with it. I love Malick, he has the heart of a lion to try the shit he does and never hide, but: The Tree of Life fell flat for me. I didn't hate it; I adored parts of it, and got teary, and it is stunning visually. Nobody else can transport you back to the dusks of your youth like Malick.
This felt forced, though -- out of sync, like a hitter in a slump who swings too hard or too late. The whispered voice-overs do reflect the things some of us say to God, but "realistic" doesn't necessarily mean "interesting," and the murmurs become redundant after a while, then almost parodic. Ditto the gazillion scenes of the kids playing, and/or their mother (Jessica Chastain) providing a safe Rockwellian haven from the cardboard abusiveness of O'Brien Sr. (Brad Pitt); it's not the repetition itself, really, but the pacing, which occasionally felt like a screensaver designed by a joint coalition of Scientific American and Betty Friedan.
The acting is very good, given that the company doesn't get much to play aside from poignant gazing. I don't know how you'd begin to direct a kid in the young-Jack role, but Hunter McCracken is a keeper. Pitt is fantastic again, illustrating the divide between the man he thinks he is and the man his sons see -- and that he knows that divide is there.
It isn't a disaster, but it never quite gets going, never quite attains that chant feeling I think Ebert is talking about that you get in other Malick works. Yes, it's self-indulgent, but that can work for this artist; here, it works against him (the regrettable megachurch-y foolishness of the ending is one example). I don't think anyone's wrong to love TToL, I agree that it's audacious and so on, but a noble failure is still a failure.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.