By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 17, 2011 at 3:00AM
Yes, you've read our initial review of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," but we've got a few more, simply because it's a film that demands discussion and contrary to popular belief, members of The Playlist do not share a brain or utilize hivemind thinking, but three writers from the site saw the film at different times yesterday in New York and L.A., and all of us came to relatively the same conclusions. Three more writers, three different, but similar takes on the film. Find them after the jump.
"The Tree of Life" is a cosmic tone poem, an ode to the violence that shapes us both domestic and galactic, so it's sort of strange that, for a movie this freely imaginative, something as simple and pedestrian as structure proves to be its ultimate undoing. To explain (with a minimal amount of specifics) – the film charts the ups and mostly downs of a small town Texas family (led by a grumpy, ex-military, possible genius played by Brad Pitt), interspersed with a subplot about the family's grown son (Sean Penn), while also chronicling nothing subtler than the formation of the universe. This is exactly the same conceit behind Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." Weird.
For the first hour or so, things hum. The domestic stuff is enchanting, thanks to the luscious cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, a radiant performance from Jessica Chastain (who adds some much-needed warmth), and a twinkly, occasionally operatic score by Alexandre Desplat. What's more – the two secondary narratives (if that's the right word) are just as mesmerizing. The Sean Penn storyline doesn't have a whole lot going on, although it seems as though, in his modern existential crisis, he seems to be pulled back to his childhood home (and beyond – to the white sandy shores of who-knows-what). More dazzling is the birth of the universe chapters, the dreamy outer space screensaver stuff, which are truly unlike anything you've seen in a movie, especially one opening up against "The Hangover, Part II." (Yes, the dinosaurs fucking rule.)
The three separate threads, strung together only via music cues and breathy voice over narration, work amazingly well in tandem. The problem is that most of the subsidiary material falls away after the first hour, and what we're left with is an only marginally involving domestic melodrama, in which the movie's mistily opaque mysteriousness often gets in the way of emotional attachment. Yes, it's amazing to watch, but there's shockingly little in the way of conflict or narrative drive. In other words: nothing happens.
Which would be fine if the movie's third act (and this is if we're analyzing the film through typical narrative benchmarks) didn't dissolve so completely. Replacing the somewhat scientific nature of the earlier birth-of-the-universe material with pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook that wouldn't have been out of place in Clint Eastwood's farcical "Hereafter" isn't just a huge artistic miscalculation; it almost sinks the whole ship. What this final section does, most cripplingly, is replaces intrigue with confusion, and distances us (as an audience) emotionally from the central family drama and further still from the compelling cosmic section. Instead of a conclusion, even a loose one that threads the separate narrative paths through overlapping imagery or thematic braiding, there appears more unnecessary layers of mystique. The pleasant aura of slight confusion becomes a prickly level of WTF-weirdness.
And this is what ultimately keeps "The Tree of Life" from being the masterpiece we all wanted it to be – its dogged commitment to its own singularity ends up making it a movie that few will understand and even fewer will connect with emotionally. It's a beautiful, elegant, elliptical contraption, easier to admire than to actually love. [B]
Inspired by one of the production company names flashed before us at the beginning of the film, my first note of the evening was "Entertainment?" -- indicating that my head was clearly in the right place for "The Tree of LIfe."
With plenty of subtext and not a whole lot of narrative pay off, this is certainly not, traditionally speaking, entertainment. And while Terrence Malick's films always seem to dance the line between the art of the visual and the art of entertainment, this appears to be his most meditative to date. Told through the story of one family, particularly the eyes of the mother, father and eldest son, 'Tree of Life' is part Nova special and part collective memory, as it looks under every rug for the answer to where we came from. Birth, death, mother, God, nature, nurture, are we simply the cells that, in a 1-in-a-billion chance came together in that first muck of the earth or are we these uniquely beautiful, albeit complicated rocks, molded by the erosion of experience?
And lastly (yes, there's more!) once we do leave, why? And where do we go? And while those memories of the latter section resonate -- in two and half hours you are bound to share or sympathize with at least one childhood anxiety or life lesson of the eldest son and lead character (if we can call him that?) -- catharsis eventually becomes discomfort, as we becoming strikingly re-aware of why it's so difficult to be a child, and for that matter, a parent.
But as any endeavor that asks the questions that really no human being could answer, we're left feeling a little unsatisfied, and a little unclear of who the man that we watched being created, turned out to be. Beautiful to watch? Yes. Solid performances all around? Yes. A successful film? Not entirely. While one could never expect the filmmaker to answer the question "what is the meaning of life?" it would have been nice to have something more solid in the search to latch onto. [Declining to grade]
When discussing Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" one must be careful of not reaching a tipping point with language. While Malick's most spiritual and experimental film, to say the drama is narrative-less and or "mostly dialogue-free" (as some critics have implied) would be erroneous. Yes, like a cosmic hymnal, there are long stretches of only stunning celestial imagery and grand operatic music that harkens back to the creation of all things, but even then, there's always a whispering voice-over imploring the universe for answers. At times heavenly, reaching a state of grace and utterly radiant visually and sonically (reaching some Kubrick-ian "2001: A Space Odyssey" levels of awe-inspiring next-level shit), the parts the make 'Tree of Life' frustrating is that the whole does not quite hold up to the some of its occassionally deeply-moving and deeply affecting parts.
And while, yes the impressionistic picture is more experimental than past Malick works, more loose and abstract with form, it is not unrecognizable. A picture in eternal search of questions itself unable to reconcile or answer, 'Tree of Life' is an often rudderless picture in search of itself. Set in 1950s Texas around a family of five, the domineering, impatient father (Brad Pitt), the empathetic and godly mother (Jessica Chastain) and their three boys, 'Tree of Life' is split up into three movements: creation, the past (Texas) and the present where Sean Penn intermittently appears as one of the older boys still troubled and haunted by his youth. But rather than acts or scenes each movement is like a fluid vignette that seems to dip in and out of consciousness like restless sleep that keeps shifting its dreams.
And while more stream and brooks of memory than traditional narrative, 'Tree of Life' is not without its story and though the picture wanders restlessly, aggravated with itself like the testy and tempestuous children in the family in search of love, approval and belonging, there is a good 40-minute chunk that begins around the 2/3rds mark (forget acts) that's devoted to the film's core family.
Maddening at its core is the sense that Malick's fluttered breath picture teeters on the edge of a luminous greatness never before captured in cinema, but it fails to ascend to those lofty heights. It's a gorgeously expressive film unable to articulate itself and the inexpressible. Whenever the picture tends to settle into a tonal groove it quickly dims itself like wind blowing out a candle. Notions that the film devolves into self-parody are, in the writers opinion, incredibly overblown, however the Sean Penn sequences are the weakest and the easiest to invite ridicule. But the ambitious picture isn't any more pretentious than past Malick film's it's just more, well, ambitious and much grander in scope.
Yes, like many of Terrence Malick's film "The Tree Of Life" may age like fine wine, but there's no denying while its heart and soul are like a peek into God's window, it is but a flirtatious glance and ultimately unsatsifying; its tricky ending moving, but not quite as angelic and heart-stirring as it (and we) wants (want it) to be. Echoing similar visuals and themes from Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain," one can argue, while very different, Malick's picture is less successful in its aims as it communicates rage, longing, love, resent and questions about the universe and the meaning of life, but it never amounts to too much other than fleeting emotions and feelings.
Oscar talk for this picture will surely fade come the fall unless serious contenders fail to emerge; its just not that kind of picture (but Pitt may have a shot). Fox Searchlight has a difficult sell on their hands as evinced already from the somewhat mixed reaction out of the arthouse-friendly Cannes critics. Malick preaches to his apostle-like choir and most of them will swoon with every note, but it's possible this picture could be even less financially successful than his previous efforts. One gets the sense that throughout the miles and miles of footage that was shot, a near-perfect, more traditional Malick picture exists, but unfortunately, its not the one that's up there on the screen.
Still, for all its minor, but aggravating issues -- again, this is a picture that hints toward pure cinematic divinity, but doesn't quite get there -- Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" is a truly powerful experience that invites multiple viewings and interpretations and the filmmaker has not lost the skill to deliver awe-inspiring sequences. Arguably the reason why this picture doesn't work is because it's Malick's angriest film (hear me out, this is relative). The sea churns, the universe cries itself awake like a difficult birth in its Nova episode-like creation sequences and these somber (and jaw-dropping visual scenes) echo the themes of childhood and and parental resent and lingering emotional disquietude. An overall melancholy, yet frustrated mien seems to stir in its troubled heart asking the unanswerable questions: why does the beauty of life give us so much pain? And why if it's ultimately worth all that hardship must it end? There's a lot to love in Malick's soul-searching, meaning-of-life questioning almost-masterpiece, but its obliqueness, does sometimes keep us one step emotionally removed. One thing's for sure, the wildly praising and dismissive reviews (particularly J. Hoberman's) are the biggest disservice to Malick's work and the film itself and to outright lump it all together as a success or failure and leave it at that misses the point completely. [B]