Movie review: Tree of Life
Film of Boredom
Look, given what I have read by other, more accomplished film critics about this movie my review is going to make me look like a knuckle dragging, low brow inbred white trash moron who can only be entertained by big explosions and bare breasts on the screen. That may well be the case, but the fact is I studied art in college, and took a lot of film and video classes. I know a few things about film theory. I love French surrealist films. Film symbolism and subtle nuance is rarely lost on me. A good independent film is a joy for me, and when I go into one that I know doesn’t conform to the Hollywood model I really try to reset my perception to look for intentions and symbolism I might not see in a movie about a super hero.
As you might have gathered from this so far, Tree of Life was not what I expected, and that’s because what I expected at some point during the movie was SOMETHING. Nothing happens during the entirety of the film. This film as like if you spliced some of the more acid induced elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey with someone’s home movies. There is no plot. There is no protagonist. There is no point. You spend two and half hours (that felt like six hours) alternating between asking “What the frak?” and praying for something, anything to happen. Hell, by the end of it I would have been happy to have had someone pull the fire alarm in the theater. (What the frak image courtesy of the tv show t shirt category).
You know, I realized about 2/3rds of the way through this opus that, if, while in school I had come across 1,000 hours of someone’s home videos and a $2,000,000 CGI effects budget this is probably the the video art project I would have come up with, for which I would have deservedly gotten a B-. For me it screams self indulgent vanity piece, which is weird because most directors do a vanity piece after they do several dozen decent movies, not four, most of which no one has ever seen (the Thin Red Line being the only one of his films I had seen previously and honestly kind of liked it).
I was so perplexed by this that I actually listened to a couple interviews with the actors in the film and found out that the director, Terry Malick, didn’t really have a script or dialog so much as he would give the actors lines as they filmed it, and allowed them to improvise as they saw fit. This actually makes a lot of sense. There is very little actual dialog in the film and what there is seems really unpolished. Instead we get to see a ton of slow panning shots of Brad Pitt’s face shot from under his chin, a lot of Stand By Me style scenes of young boys running around playing and breaking stuff, a lot of mommy bonding with babies and boys while dad is more or less abusing, and a lot of Evil Captain Kirk shot up from the ground two feet in front of him stumbling around as Sean Penn has a mental breakdown. I have said several times that this movie is like watching home movies, and that appears to be exactly how it was shot.
I won’t say it didn’t elicit emotion, as long as depression, boredom, and confusion are emotions. The movie starts off with the parents dealing with the death of a son, and then starts flashing back all over the place. The thing is, home movies can be fun and whimsical, kind of like watching the Wonder Years, but the fact that we start off knowing that one of the three boys is destined to die casts a terrible pall over every scene that follows, and you spend the entire movie wondering which of them it is going to be. Can there be anything more depressing than watching a loving mother bonding with her infant and toddler sons, knowing that in a few years one of them will be tragically killed in some ill defined manner? Of course by the end of the film I was praying for any of the characters to die, if only to break up the monotony.
Sigh. The story, for lack of a better term. The film starts off with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain playing Mr. and Mrs. O’Brian, a typical 1950’s couple who receive the horrible news that one of their three boys has been killed. Since the news is delivered via telegram I can only assume it was in Korea or Vietnam. We get to sit through some disjointed funeral and dealing with death scenes, which for Mr. O’Brian seems to involve watering his lawn. There are some early references to Job and some highly pretentious voice over passages that all seem to be very Bible related, so I think there was something about the whole “why do bad things happen to good people?” debate in this. Anyway, we are treated to a red lava lamp (that recurs several times) that I think is supposed to represent the creator and suddenly are whipped back to the beginning of time and the creation of the universe. At this point I really wasn’t sure what was going on and had heard someone describe this film as science fiction, so my interest perked in the hope we were actually on a another planet and the dead son was going to be reincarnated as an alien, but sadly this was not to be the case. Instead we were treated to a long zero purpose montage of the creation of our planet from a flaming ball of lava to single celled organism, evolving into fish and eventually into the dinosaurs on the planet. I am not kidding. Basically we got to watch discovery channel for 20 minutes.
I said the dinosaur sequence was a montage, but honestly the entire film is a montage. It is a long (long, long) string of disconnected scenes mashed together with no attempt to have any scenes connect in any way, or for the matter have even a few of the scenes have any plot points or story significance. I doubt there is much dead footage on the cutting room floor, as Terry pretty much shoved in any scene where they didn’t accidentally shoot the boom mike. Anyway, flash forward a few hundred million years and it’s the 50’s in Waco, Texas. The O’Brians are starting their family and have three sons, who rapidly grow up to late pre-teens and pretty much stay there for the rest of the film. You occasionally flash forward even more to modern New York where Sean Penn plays some kind of architect or business owner. He is one of the sons grown up and apparently haunted by the death of his brother, so every time you start to feel even a little warm and fuzzy watching idyllic 1950’s you get a nice reminder of the impending death of one of the three precocious kids. Also, at one point he starts having acid trips and is somehow in his suit out in the desert. The scenes jump around purposelessly. Sometimes it is Brad Pitt as Wally Cleaver, being a great dad. Sometimes it is him being my dad, authoritarian and borderline abusive. Sometimes it is the boys playing, then fighting, then wrecking stuff, then getting into trouble. The thing is every time you think one of these scenes is going to develop into something, it doesn’t. There is a scene where Jack, the oldest boy, seems to have a crush on a girl from school and follows her after school. OMG is something interesting going to happen? No, lets cut to another scene of the boys chasing a frog around and never see the girl again. Jack hates his father in a classic Oedipal complex (I’d like to give the movie some credit for delivering that concept in a subtle manner, but at one point the kid pretty much shouts out that he hates his dad and that his mother only loves him). You see a scene where Mr. O’Brian is working under a car with just a flimsy jack holding it up. The kid is tempted to release the jack, possibly killing his own father. Wow, could this actually get interesting? No, lets show the kid running off and hitting a tree with a stick.
This goes on and on and on. There is a lot of weird crap thrown in too, like a repeating scene of young Jack being inside the house that is flooded and swimming out, and a recurring scene of underwater grass waving. Not sure what that was about. Eventually Sean Penn is in a scene of a bunch of people on a beach, including his dead brother and (possibly dead) mother. I guess it is supposed to be the reuniting of the dead in heaven? I spent the last hour or so praying for the credits to start rolling and then, with no apparently real conclusion or purpose, they do.
The stars. Brad Pitt. One star. Sean Penn. One star. Authentic 1950’s stuff. One star. Reasonably accurate portrayal of what young boys do when left to their own devices. One star. Some very cool old cars. One star. I’d like to give the acting a star, but really I can’t say that is so as none of the dialog scenes actually extend past two or three lines. The director could have easily just taken the top 1% of the scenes they filmed and dumped the rest to make more room for dinosaurs. I will refrain. The film and camera work were actually pretty good. One star. Total: six stars.
Now the black holes. I have to give a couple for the time I spent in the film asking “What the hell is going on?” Two black holes. Bored. Bored bored bored bored bored. Three black holes. No real plot. Two black holes. They kept flashing back to the acid trip lava lamp creator of the universe. One black hole. No real dialog. One black hole. No protagonist. One black hole. Disjointed editing. On black hole. Pacing from hell. One black hole. The actual points I think was trying to be made about either the creation of life, man’s insignificance in the universe, or the injustice of bad things happening to good people were all actually pretty prosaic, not to mention poorly delivered. One black hole. Purposeless journey to the Land of the Lost. One black hole. Total: fourteen black holes.
A less than grand total of eight black holes from me. Why, then, the disparity between this review and so many others? You see, I think this is a prime case of the Emporor’s New Clothes syndrome. This film won the prestigious Cannes’ Palme d’Or award. Cannes’ Film Festival is held in such high regard that no one who has a serious career in movie reviewing can risk going against the consensus of the film intellectual elite. Thus, every critic must say something good about it. Fortunately for you readers I have no serious film reviewing career and can say what I really feel, which is that this film was a steaming pile of pretentious crap. I don’t know. Maybe I am a moron and am missing something beuatiful and deep, but I can only review films based on my actual film viewing experience, and that experience was that at some point during the film I was wondering if the green Exit signs in the theater had actual batteries in them that needed replacing or if they used rechargeable ones they just kept charged up from the power grid. I guess on some level I sort of get what Mr. Malick was going for, and will say he managed to nail the atmosphere brilliantly, but overall I feel like I just watch two hours of random videos off YouTube.