After what seems like an eternity, Terrence Malick’s 5th film has finally reached theaters. The Tree of Life is a great many things, while also never explicitly making its ambitions clear. Is it a meditation on nature vs. nurture? Is it rumination on the universe? Is it Malick trying to understand a supreme being? Is it simply a story of a boy dealing with the loss of childhood innocence? To me, it’s all of those things, and more. The other thing that this film is, however, is incredibly flawed. Malick’s bitten off more than he can chew, and while he’s never been more gripping as a director, he’s never misfired this badly as a writer. While he brings us indelible images that I believe are some of the most beautiful ever committed to film, he also brings us a glacially paced movie that has very little in the way of a plot and ultimately thinks that it’s saying more than it actually is. Granted, the flick has a lot going for it; incredible cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, a heart stirring score from Alexandre Desplat, a career best supporting turn from Brad Pitt, and a startlingly good debut from Hunter McCracken, but it’s also far too long, way too redundant, and ultimately designed in such a way that it invites reverence and admiration more than enjoyment. I know that I saw something special, but I also know that it’s also a disappointment and a vague misfire from the enigmatic filmmaker. In many ways, this is the cinematic equivalent of attending church…except the sermon is too self-important and ultimately unable to leave the mark on you that it intends.
Conventional plot descriptions are of no real use to us here, but these are the basics that you need to know. The film opens by introducing us to the O’Brien family. The story mostly centers on the eldest son Jack (McCracken, in an inspiring debut) and his experiences growing up in Texas in the 1950’s. He has two younger brothers named R.L. and Steve (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan respectively, both newcomers as well), a stern father (Pitt), and an angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). After an all but dialogue free introduction to these characters and their picturesque town, Malick literally takes us to the beginning of time for an extended look at the creation of the universe. After witnessing evolution (yes, including dinosaurs), we go back to young Jack and his family. We also meet the adult version of Jack (Sean Penn), who never seemed to be able to get over the death of one of his brothers (it’s not a spoiler, I promise), while also seemingly still greatly affected by the metaphorical battle over his soul that his parents seem to be engaged in. His father is a stern taskmaster, preaching survival of the fittest and tough love, while his mother ethereal and one with the universe it seems. Jack sees both the beautiful and the tragic as a boy, and as an adult seems ill equipped to handle it. By the time all of the elements have come together on a beach, one is left wondering just what exactly Malick is trying to tell us. What seems beyond question is the thesis that this boy’s childhood is but one small moment in the universe’s vast existence.
Hunter McCracken has never acted before, but he still gives one of the most subtle and tender performances of the year. You see your own self as a child in his portrait of Jack. Malick deserves a lot of credit for getting this performance out of the child. It never appears like “acting,” but it’s still incredibly effective. The other non-actor children are fine, but McCracken steals the show. As good as McCracken is, as much praise needs to go to Brad Pitt, who does work here, I’m not sure I knew he was capable of. He disappears into the role of the traditional 50’s father figure…just not the one we all saw on television. He’s violent and cold, even when speaking of love. When the narrative turns to his character and you hear his thoughts, Pitt absolutely nails the quiet sadness that makes this character the way that he is. It’s an Oscar worthy supporting performance (make no mistake, Pitt is a supporting player. McCracken is the closest thing to a lead in the movie). As for Jessica Chastain, she’s honestly not given nearly enough to do. The performance is good, but she barely speaks and often is just looking off into the sky. Malick did her a real disservice, as the character had potential. That being said, no one is more wasted than Sean Penn. His entire portion of the movie is extraneous and could easily have been removed, as what is currently there is little more than a sad looking Penn all but silently wandering a desert until the final moments, which I won’t spoil. Chastain and
Penn are absolutely wasted, though the strength of McCracken and Pitt’s work makes up for it, to a degree. Terrence Malick has always been a visual artist, and he’s somehow upped his game here. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the images in the film are some of the best I’ve ever seen. I’m also not exaggerating when I say that he’s working off of a borderline incoherent and aimless script. It’s a frustrating paradox. Malick also is incapable of pacing the film in a way that doesn’t test the patience of all but the absolute most patient viewers. He very nearly lost me a couple of times. It doesn’t help that every single sequence in the movie is essentially a montage with no beginning or end. Another issue is the fact that the film is about 50% silent, and on the occasions that a character talks, more than half of the time it is in voiceover, as they mutter to themselves of some being in the sky. It’s very odd to spend almost 2 and a half hours with characters that very rarely speak to each other. It’s a stylistic decision, I realize, but one that I just wasn’t a fan of.
I know everyone is curious about the film’s Oscar chances, so let me get this out of the way…you can cross it off from Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and likely Best Supporting Actress. The film is far too Avant-garde for Academy voters, and even in a year of 10 nominees, I don’t see it getting enough votes. In that same realm, without a Lone Director slot anymore (one assumes), Malick will find it almost impossible to get recognition. As for the Screenplay category, I suppose it could function as a consolation prize, but I find the script far too flawed for contention. Supporting Actress seemed like a possibility, but with how little Chastain has to do, I just don’t see it. Best Actor for McCracken would be a longshot, but nice to see. Where does it have its best chances? Well, I can see Pitt making noise in Supporting Actor, and I’d say that Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography are locks. Also, if the score isn’t deemed ineligible, I’d pencil it in there too. Essentially, it’s going to do well in the technical categories, but struggle mightily in the major categories.
In the end, one wonders if The Tree of Life was worth the wait. I’m inclined to say that it was, while also pointing out that it’s staggeringly flawed for something that was obsessed over in minute detail for so long. I definitely recommend seeing it, but I also must caution you against thinking that it’s going to be the Second Coming. It’s a movie dealing (possibly) with the end of time, and it takes almost that long to sit through the thing. There are pleasures to be found, but the film is ultimately a surprisingly mixed bag. Color me disappointed…
Since 1974 Terence Malick has directed just five films.
Five folks, and the last three came after a twenty year absence behind the camera.
He is revered by some critics and historians as a genius, a reclusive intellect who once walked away from movies for more than twenty years, with no real explanation, to lecture at MIT and do some work on various screenplays. Lately he has been accorded the sort of adulation given to Kubrick or Martin Scorsese, and frankly, I am a little surprised by it all because I am not so sure it is deserving. Of his five films, Badlands (1974) remains a classic and might be his masterpiece, while Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) have moments of spectacular beauty but equal amounts of tedium. The New World (2005) was superb though went unappreciated by audiences and some critics, a sublime visual work that deserved to be recognized for its artistry. Each of Malick’s films explores how the actions of the characters present consequences to both those around them and the nature around them. This was never more evident than in The Thin Red Line (1998) in which we saw time and time again how war impacted the creatures and flora and fauna if the Pacific Islands. He did much of the same in The New World (2005) in which the lush forests seemed as virginal as they must have been when first discovered by the men who came on great ships from Europe, claiming the new world for their kings and queens, quite forgetting that the lands were inhabited.
Admittedly I neither agree with nor appreciate the adulation being given to Malick, who I think is a very good director, but not a great one, at least not yet. In fact, often his work is self-indulgent and resembles artistic masturbation meaning the only one deriving any sort of pleasure from the film is himself because chances are only he knows what it is about or means!! His new film, The Tree of Life, has moments that are as bold as anything any filmmaker has ever done, reaching into man’s distant past and equally distant future to explore his narrative. He challenges both audience and himself with important questions about mankind, and in its vast ambition attempt to encompass the meaning of life and existence through a fifties family and their challenges with everyday life. Rarely has a director made his job more difficult than Malick does with this picture, yet in many ways he makes the thing work in spite of himself, filling the screen with intense beauty and equal parts ugliness, balancing what is good about humanity with what is not. I struggled with the film, mightily, have since seen it again, and though I am not entirely sure I can say I like it, I have thought of little else since, and believe it to be a great film.
Much of the narrative centers on the O’Brien family in the fifties, where a tragedy will impact the family and tear at their fabric and strengths. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a tough disciplinarian not above whacking one of his kids at the dinner table if he feels it warrants it. On the other hand his wife, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is much more gentle and understanding of her children and would not believe in raising her hand to any of them. Through the course of the film we see how nature and life gives, and how, with the death of one of the children it takes away with cruelty and silence. Those left are left to deal with the unthinkable, the death of a child, and our children are never supposed to go before us. The great Canadian playwright/ writer Timothy Findley once wrote, “When our children die, we perish” and he could not have been more correct.
Malick captures the sights and sounds of small town fifties America to perfection. Think of the sequence of the young boy waking up to the sound of a lawn mower in the morning, the instant security that he is at home in his own bed, with familiar sounds all around him puts him at ease. Drawing on his own past in Waco, Texas, Malick has brought that very past to life on screen with utter perfection. If one were to be perfectly honest, the film does not possess a strong narrative, but instead feels like a portrait of life unfolding day to day, captured with an authenticity that is uncanny and sublime. We forget that life is interesting, because in movies the action and plot is crammed into a two hour plot; not here, the life within the film, the living and dying that is life is the film is the narrative. And Malick goes deeper, into the questions of life, the mysteries of life and how it all began. He reaches back to the very beginnings of life on this planet to explore just how it all got started, and in doing so explores how small we all are, and how we take up an instant in the life of the universe, a universe that will barely notice we are here or have been alive at all. These are not small ideas, in fact, they are expansive and daring in an age of films such as we have today. How rare directors make us think, that they engage us and challenge us with a film that is intellectual and does not offer all the answers. Not since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) has a film so defiantly demanded we find our own answers for the questions posed.
Brad Pitt gives one of his finest performances as the strict Mr. O’Brien, though despite being a tough man the adoration he feels for his family is evident in his eyes each and every time he looks at them. Equally brilliant, in fact, more so is Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O’Brien, in a radiant performance of luminous beauty that could and should land her in the Oscar race. Sean Penn does fine work, can we expect any less from him at this point, as the grown son, left to mourn the loss of his brother, left to recognize the devastation the death brought to the family, to his parents, to himself. Haunted by his own past, Penn captures the sadness of the man superbly, allowing the audience to understand we never escape our past; we carry it with us always.