Written and Directed By: Terrence Malick
Produced By: Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Edited By: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
Music By: Alexandre Desplat
Distributed By: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Budget: $32 million
Runtime: 139 minutes
Just like Midnight in Paris was my first Woody Allen film, The Tree of Life is my first Terrance Malick film. I hear great things about it, and I really want to see The Thin Red Line after watching a clip in class. Unlike Midnight in Paris, however, I did not like The Tree of Life. At all. It’s amazing to watch, and I could watch a series of still photographs from it for ages, but as a film it does not do what I think a good film should do. This is a heated debate, no doubt, but all the same this is not a film I enjoyed for various reasons. The acting is great and the directing is great, but this film proves having an amazing crew and producing it exactly as it should be does not always equal a good product. Read on to see why.
The Tree of Life tells three parallel stories: that of Jack O’Brien, grown, on the anniversary of his brother’s death (who died as a child, but the film doesn’t tell us it’s his anniversary). Sean Penn, in this role, walks around and stars out of windows in every scene, presumedly looking back at his life. This gives us the second story: mid 1960s of Jack being raised by his father, played by Brad Pitt, who is a tough father, to put it simply. The third story is that of the universe. Yep, the universe. There is an entire half hour segment that takes us from the big bang through the creation of the solar system, the planets, evolution of life on earth, and on towards the 1960s. Later on, this story continues with the destruction of earth by a supernova sun.
In other words, the film is all about the cycles of birth, life and death. In case you haven’t picked up on it already, this film, for me, represents the quintessential uber-art house piece. To me, it serves no purpose other than to look amazing while slowly getting across some metaphysical theme of existence. Terrance Malick is this type of director, but from what I know of his previous films they tend to do so with a steady narrative and in an entertaining way. This film fails at these things. Yes, it gets across its messages, but it takes two hours of little dialogue and many slow pans and shows of leaves and the sun to do so. The film is beautiful. It deserves the Best Cinematography Oscar, but this is just about all the film has going for it.
For example, I absolutely love the creation of the universe sequence. It’s a solid half-hour of almost no dialogue and amazing visual effects of truly beautiful things. Why does this sequence look so awesome? Douglas Trumbull. He’s the special effects supervisory for 2001: A Space Odyssey and has been retired for almost thirty years. Malick approached him about this film because he doesn’t like computer generated imagery. Perhaps this surprises those of you who have seen the film, but the entire creation of the universe sequence was achieved using old school methods: paint, chemicals, fluorescent dyes, flares, high speed photography, so on. Proto-earth scenes are just shots of modern volcanic eruptions. Nebulas are smoke and dyed chemicals. It’s a great sequence that I would gladly watch by itself over and over, but only because it is, by itself, a really awesome narrative that looks really awesome. I don’t think these traits are carried through to the rest of the film.
Only complementing the visuals isn’t fair enough, perhaps. The acting is also great. Pitt, Penn, and Hunter McCracken (young Jack) do fantastic jobs. Brad Pitt perfectly gets across his division between wanting to be a good father but having been raised with fatherly ideals not necessarily up to par with the period. Add to this a career that isn’t necessarily as successful as he’d like (though he is a somewhat successful inventor) and he tends to take things out on his eldest son, Jack. Jessica Chastain playing an overly loving stay-at-home mother makes the contrast here all the more distinct. Hunter McCracken does a superb job as young Jack, getting across all the emotions of a boy growing up in the 1960s with two parents of very different parenting styles. He loves his mother. He wants to impress his father. Protect his brothers. Be rebellious with his friends. Basically every stage of the growing boy.
The film is also very well directed. I say this and still think it is not a good film, based on principle. Malick is a great director. There’s no doubt there. He’s a visionary, an artist. He knew the image he wanted to get on screen and with the help of many achieved that goal. It is because of Malick’s directing that the film looks so beautiful, that the actors manifest their characters’ emotions so vividly. Yet, I still did not like the film and hold firm that it does not achieve what I see as what film should achieve. The Tree of Life represents what I see as everything great and everything bad about “artsy” cinema. It looks gorgeous. It’s deep, thematically. It took a long time to complete and everyone involved was working on it because they care about the project and want to see it followed through on.
I don’t want to say it fails because it’s not entertaining, as if all films must be. This claim is too broad. I will say that I paused the film several times to go do other things. I had to or I would have fallen asleep. Ironically, many of the visual effects practices used were also used in The Fountain, another of my least favorite films of all time, and there are more similarities here. You can think my film preferences are hack for not appreciated something as truly representative of art as The Tree of Life, but I would disagree. I think this film is very much art. It’s high art. Except I don’t think this is what all films are supposed to strive for. I’m not saying this film was a waste of money or time. It’s a solid piece of work, but it’s hard to get through. It’s slow. It’s convoluted, and if I care to be a tad harsher it’s two hours of Malick’s ego slamming your head against the screen. The Tree of Life is the most pretentious film I have ever seen. Maybe you like films of this style (not pretentious, I mean), which is your prerogative, but I do not. I don’t regret seeing the film, but I don’t plan to see it again. Except for that creation sequence.