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"The Tree of Life" Is All Style and No Substance

By Christopher Campbell | Spout October 11, 2011 at 6:32AM

This review was originally published May 27, 2011. It is being reposted for the DVD release.
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This review was originally published May 27, 2011. It is being reposted for the DVD release.

I will come right out and say this at the risk certainty of being thought a pretentious ass who doesn't know what he's talking about: I am intellectually above Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." Or, I'm at least philosophically and religiously above it. That is the only explanation I can have for getting so little out of it and walking away feeling nary a bit of enlightenment or passionate response. There is no way that I didn't get it, as some of the smartest critics are even admitting to.

It's a rather simplistic film about a man's contemplation of his life in the context of billions of years of the universe's existence. And the whole idea it lays out, that we are relatively insignificant yet also evolutionarily important on a grand scale is key to both its own lack of significance and its necessity -- as far as it might inspire a filmmaker to make a better movie one day (we could actually use a replacement for the formerly promising Malick disciple, David Gordon Green). "The Tree of Life" is as appreciable as a life itself, but it is also as trivial and fleeting and easily forgotten.

My claiming that the film is all style and no substance is not exactly a negative criticism. Those of you who will read it that way are possibly guilty of not appreciating cinema as spectacle when it comes to more mainstream fluff. "The Tree of Life" is only superior to "The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" as far as Malick's eye as a poetic filmmaker is concerned. Story-wise it's not working with any smarter ideas or themes. And you can easily get from one to the other by way of Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain," which many are comparing to and praising above the Malick (I disagree, as I couldn't get through more than an hour of "The Fountain" when I attempted it this week -- though I'm sure it looks excellent on a big screen).

The other obvious reference point is Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" which is not exactly out of nowhere since the filmmaker hired effects legend Douglas Trumbull because of his work on the sci-fi classic. I hear Malick even wanted to improve upon "2001," but all he's done is come off looking like a minor derivative, a la De Palma's relationship to Hitchcock, or what "True Romance" is to Malick's own "Badlands" (one of my favorite films of all time, I must point out). With "The Tree of Life" we get protozoa and dinosaurs instead of prehistoric man and later, instead of the surreal material we get from Kubrick, there's some horribly sappy heavenly beach scene that might not have seemed so cornball if it didn't remind me so much of Clint Eastwood's own embarrassing afterlife stuff in "Hereafter."

"2001" was long thought of as the most expensive experimental film ever made. I don't know how the budgets between that and this compare with inflation, but I'd rather call "The Tree of Life" the most expensive student film instead, anyway. It has more of that gaudy artiness and ambition that true experimental filmmakers thankfully lack. And I'll be honest, I'm pretty picky when it comes to acceptance of experimental cinema and also poetry. I won't deny that Malick has a poetic sensibility with his filmmaking. I won't deny him his allowance for delivering what's clearly a personal and expressive work that is exactly how he wants it. I really can only deny it's how I want it.

What I want is just the long middle section, the part that stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents of three boys in mid-20th century Texas. The Big Bang stuff before that is pretty but overdone and not well connected. The family narrative is not only the strongest part of "The Tree of Life," but by itself it's some of the strongest cinema of the year. But again, there isn't a whole lot of substance to the storytelling. It's a choppy, episodic drama of classic Oedipal and Biblical dimensions, crafted out of mesmerizing cinematography (though a bit too much slow motion and upward pans to the sky), sharp jump-cutting and a wonderful performance by Chastain (the breakthrough star of the year, in my opinion).

The best parts are akin to the best parts of Malick's previous film, "The New World," those shots that evoke the sense of seeing something for the very first time. For "The New World" those shots are mostly in the discovery by the Indians of the arriving ships and later the curious, innocent explorations of Pocahontas in England, with all its relative novelties. In "The Tree of Life" we primarily get this wonderment when eldest son Jack (later played by Hunter McCrackin and Sean Penn as an 11-year-old and adult, respectively) is a baby and a toddler.

Thinking of the film through this character's fuzzy and erratic memory allows for some fascinating considerations of our own loose recollections of childhood, which may now seem as if it's from the beginnings of time, in terms of its haziness and meaningfulness. However, the "present" scenes with Penn somewhat ruin the value of any of that, partly because the actor is more like a prop than a character. HAL from "2001" has more emotionality, and I'm left wondering if the good parts of "The Tree of Life" are just the false memories of a robot, since that's what Penn seems like. To reference another Kubrick film, at least one he'd conceived, Penn is like Haley Joel Osment in "A.I.," and I think I now understand what so many people felt about the last section of that movie.

Like most critics who don't love "The Tree of Life," I do like much of it a lot. Still, too much of it is like watching grass grow (and then eventually get slowly fondled by Sean Penn's hand in a moment that just seems like Malick is satirizing himself). It's a "glorious," "magnificent" spectacle that is worth seeing on the big screen, in 3D if available (I kid, it's not), but not really worth thinking too much about afterward. I hope it does Malick well, though as is acknowledge in the film, the good don't usually succeed. "The Tree of Life" isn't great but it's not bad, either. Not bad enough to do really well anyway. Whatever, though, because good or bad, the film is just a drop in the ocean of life and art, unless in a few thousand years a Werner Herzog type makes an example out of it for "Cave of Forgotten Dreams Part II."


"The Tree of Life" is now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Recommended If You Like: "2001: A Space Odyssey"; "Stand By Me"; "The New World"


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