Am I reviewing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life over six months after it was released in theaters?
Does this render my review practically obsolete due to extreme, ridiculous late-ness?
Wanna keep reading anyway?
Let’s hope that’s a yes. If so, signify by hitting that sweet, sweet ‘Continue Reading’ button.
First off, congratulations on continuing to read this (hopefully) wonderful and insightful article.
(nervous, awkward laughter)
Anyway, let me start by posing a question: What makes a movie?
Is it simply a series of pictures in motion? Or should there be some underlying connection in what we see, linking each image into some kind of story? Can we consider anything with moving pictures to truly be a motion picture? The point I’m trying to make here is: Where does a movie like The Tree of Life fall on the spectrum between “Movies with a clear narrative” and “A random jumbling of images and sounds projected on a screen?”
You may have gathered from this introduction that I’m not really enthused with the narrative elements in The Tree of Life. It’s true. If you were to, spontaneously, divide movie fans into those who go for the images and those who go for the story, I’d be a story guy, through and through. The Tree of Life is beautiful, there’s no doubt about that. Nearly every image in the film, from the highest peaks to the deepest oceans to the lines in Brad Pitt’s face are captured with a sense of care and wonder that’s almost magical.
But images alone can’t carry a two hour and twenty minute movie. And the pacing is so glacial (and the story so minimal) that I found myself wishing for the end about an hour in. The Tree of Life is a simple story about a father’s abuses shaping his son’s life, but from what we see there’s just not enough meat in that story to sustain a nearly two and a half hour running time. This is especially true when a sizable chunk of that running time is devoted to near-still shots of stars, planets, mountains, lava, dinosaurs and eerie lights that may or may not be some kind of higher power.
The story itself, though, is powerful, and when the tension actually ramps up The Tree of Life can be very captivating (mostly due to Brad Pitt’s abrasive, ugly, wonderful turn as the I-had-to-look-his-name-up-afterward ‘Mr. O’Brien’). It’s just plagued with detours to all sorts of far-off places that are wondrous to look at but narratively useless. As I watched more and more of the film, I found myself wondering on multiple occasions: What does this add to the movie?
Why did the creation-of-life segment last so long? I understand the idea of showing the creation of life in the universe as a contrast to life in the O’Brien family, but what did the immense length and stillness of that sequence add to the movie that a similar, much-shorter sequence wouldn’t have?
What was Sean Penn doing here? If we’re seeing him in the present while we see his childhood self develop, shouldn’t there be some kind of significance to his adult self? Other than a brief, uncomfortable phone call with his father, how did this tumultuous upbringing affect his character? We really don’t get to find out, because all Sean Penn does is stare out into space and trudge through mountains and deserts and a very, very heavy-handed “doorframe to nowhere in the middle of nothingness.” What did Sean Penn’s presence add to this movie?
What’s with the odd vision sequence at the end? When Jessica Chastain gives her son to God, why is there some other woman we’ve never seen before standing in the frame with her? And in that same sequence, what’s the point of having Sean Penn and Brad Pitt walking side-by-side? What does this symbolize? Is this some kind of resolution for the conflict between the two characters? There’s no real climax to the relationship between the father and the son in this story, so I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to think by seeing the two of them walk together at the end of the picture.
And this was basically my mindset throughout the whole movie. I would ask a question to myself that I know wouldn’t get answered, I would get frustrated, and then would continue watching and have this process repeat again and again. And at the same time, I would think, “Oooohh, how pretty” at all the visual marvels The Tree of Life has to offer.
So, if you think that masterful photography drives you to the movies more than a compelling story does, then go see The Tree of Life. But remember that this review’s about nine months too late and that you’ve probably already seen it by now if you were interested at the get-go.
But anyway, thanks for reading!