June 01, 2011

The Tree of Life

Mike's review:

I'm a die-hard Terrence Malick fan. The first film of his I saw was The Thin Red Line, which is one of my all-time favorites. Badlands and Days of Heaven are brilliant, and I put The New World as the best film of 2005. Hell, even when people try to imitate him (David Gordon Green, Andrew Dominik) the results are spectacular. The guy is a genuine movie god.
His reclusiveness was once fascinating, now distracting. Brad Pitt said at Cannes that he's really shy. But extremely shy people don't make movies. When a handful of fans spotted him at a restaurant in Cannes, he declined autographs and photos, instead offering to shake their hands. He goes to great lengths to maintain his privacy, but do other great directors really get bothered that much by anyone? Sometimes, those who seek privacy actually want attention - and that's what Malick is getting out of it, whether he wants it or not. The whole mystique surrounding him seems manufactured. Anecdotes about his love for the Ben Stiller movie Zoolander almost seem like schtick. Maybe he's carefully crafting his own legacy. Or maybe he just wants his films to speak for themselves. On one hand, that's exactly what he's accomplishing... but on the other hand, the Bigfoot-like reports of his whereabouts are turning him into a sideshow.
But, whatever. The guy's brilliant and he can do what he wants. Or so I thought. That seems to be the very problem with The Tree of Life. With his first four films, he spoiled me. And perhaps he too was spoiled, with his freedom and authority, surrounded by Yes-men with too much trust in his ability to deliver. I doubt that The Tree of Life as-is is anywhere near what he set out to make and the end-result seems not so much compromised as it does salvaged.
The Tree of Life is a poignantly hard-hitting, beautiful film. I'll be the umpteenth person to proclaim that, yes, every frame is a work of art. But in the Malick canon, it's still a misfire. In my opinion, the problem is in the prologue (evolution) and the epilogue (afterlife). The hour and a half in the middle - which involves a boy and his two brothers and their caring mother (Jessica Chastain) and domineering, sometimes abusive (albeit not unusually so for a '50s patriarch) father (Brad Pitt) - was great. I found it to be a wonderful warts-and-all portrait of growing up, expectations, unrealized ambitions, loss, and so on. And, of course, the struggle of how to go through life. I should also add that the framing device involving Sean Penn was effective. All the performances - especially Pitt and the eldest son - were outstanding.

While I liked the beginning, which shows us the Big Bang and evolution, I didn't find it necessary as part of the whole. It doesn't say anything that isn't already said in the main storyline, really. And while some of the imagery is stunning, not all the visual effects are up to par. On its own, it's a stunning montage, but as part of Malick's film, it puts the story it's telling in an outrageous context. While some might find it compelling and thought-provoking, it just didn't do much for me.
The same goes for the epilogue, which explores the afterlife. I found it to be unnecessary and ultimately just plain silly.
The film is emotionally powerful and definitely worth your time - both to see it and to process it. With Malick's previous films, I think I just saw him as a genius and accepted every choice he made with a strong trust in his moviegod talents. He is a master, after all. But with The Tree of Life, Malick's time spent in the editing room (over a year) is painfully obvious. He's notorious for filming tons of footage and stewing it in the editing room. In The Thin Red Line, significant characters were cut completely out of the film, while others saw their parts reduced to just minutes of screentime. It's clear that this was also the case with Sean Penn's character - as the grown-up eldest son in present times - in The Tree of Life. With the Thin Red Line, it worked out marvelously and the end result is a masterpiece. With Tree of Life, not quite...
The Tree of Life is good-but-not-great. Contemplative and stunning. While I can be happy with a good film, coming from Malick I'm disappointed that it's not great.

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