THE TREE OF LIFE
Terrence Malick Believes
By Cole Smithey
"The Tree of Life" is a bold but flailing attempt to create an epic transgressive experimental cinema of cosmic proportions. Terrence Malick introduces his lush but unsatisfying odyssey of '50s Americana with a biblical quote from God in the Book of Job. The hyperbolic text sets the abstract narrative that follows in thematic quicksand.
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?When the morning stars sang together,And all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
Oh boy. Give me a gumball at the soda stand while I order up a chocolate milkshake and watch Cindy Lou fix the ribbon in her hair at the shop window.
At one point a mother points up toward a beautiful sky and announces to her sons, "God lives up there." Such corniness is commonplace in lines of voice-over narration that sound as though they're being read from the back of a Baptist pamphlet. A character dies early on in the story. Another person is compelled to comment "He's in God's hands now." Someone replies, "He was in God's hands the whole time."
For long stretches the film fawns over Hubble-inspired images from the vast reaches of outer space. Mammoth colorful nebula groove in iridescent delight. Billions of stars twinkle. The Earth's Sun erupts with gargantuan volcanic ferocity in extreme close-ups that put the viewer smack in the middle of boiling scalding lava. Perhaps Malick is making an oblique case for intelligent design. If so, he plays his narrative cards too close to the vest to tell. Think of the wallpaper movie as cinematic Xanex. No amount of coffee will keep your eyes from wanting to shut. As for the inevitable comparisons critics will be tempted to make with Stanley Kubrick's "2001 A Space Odyssey," beware. No such comparison is appropriate. Inevitable, but not appropriate.
Malick is clearly making a statement about the impermanent spec of astral dust that humanity represents against the infinite and expanding continuum of the cosmos. His meta-meta-micro vision does achieve the desired effect of making the audience feel small. It also makes us feel like we're being preached to by a filmmaker with not much more to express than how insignificant humanity is. If this sounds like a revelation, as it must have to Malick, you've come to the right place.
A pre-historic flashback involving CGI dinosaurs helps the film stay in its chosen vantage point of a wistful preteen boy in the '50s. A dinosaur lets another one die in a rollicking stream rather than crushing the wounded creature's head beneath his powerful foot. The scene looks cool but doesn't resonate in the grand scheme of the film.
The film's somewhat more coherent aspect involves the flashback storyline of Sean Penn's rarely seen modern day character Jack. In '50s era Waco, Texas a family of three young boys--of whom Jack is one--and their blank-slate mother are overseen by Brad Pitt as their temperamental patriarch Mr. O'Brien. Pitt's father figure is one mean son-of-a-bitch. The actor employs a lower-lip pout as an outward physical symptom of a company-man patent creator who likes to lash out at his wife and sons when isn't flying to foreign countries on work assignments. From Malick's perspective, men in the '50s carried around pretty big chips on their shoulders. Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) comes to loathe his father. He wishes his dad would die. Inexplicable delinquent behavior ensues.
"The Tree of Life" is an event movie that should be seen by anyone who loves cinema, if only to arrive at their own estimation of Terrance Malick's overwrought filmic poem. Sean Penn's Jack represents an everyman of Western culture. He is ostensibly Malick's alter ego, whose questions of existence threaten to eclipse the pretentious life he leads in an icy world of steel and glass.
From a visual standpoint, the film is astounding. Thematically, it tries to do too much with too little. Terrence Malick obviously set out to make a "thought-provoking," "mind-blowing," "meditation" on the meaning of life. As could be predicted by such vague, overblown aspirations he ended up with a constipated and remote movie.
"The Tree of Life" is a divine fiasco because it doesn't just want to stare at its navel, it seeks to suck up its own umbilical cord and slingshot beyond all that is knowable. Although it screened to resounding boos at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, it won the Palme d'or. It might come as a surprise to Malick to imagine that if you know you're creating when you're creating then you're not creating. But don't take my word for it, see "The Tree of Life" by all means. Doing so comes with bragging rights.
Rated PG-13. 109 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
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