- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
errence Malick’s highly-anticipated new film, “The Tree of Life,” is practically guaranteed to cause dissention among viewers. While some will likely appreciate its ambitious attempt to deconstruct the meaning of life, others will think that it’s nothing more than a pretentious piece of cosmic gobbledygook that doesn't say much of anything at all. Personally, I’ve had bowel movements that were more exciting than the first half of this movie, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what Malick is trying to accomplish here. And yet, despite asking some pretty big questions about God, free will, and learning to cope with losing those you love, it’s ultimately too much to tackle within the confines of a two-hour movie – especially one that fails to make any of it very interesting.
“The Tree of Life” is a difficult film to summarize, and it certainly doesn't help that Malick takes his good old time (almost an hour, by my count) getting to the meat of the story. The movie opens with a husband (Brad Pitt) and wife (Jessica Chastain) discovering that one of their sons has died at the age of 19, although it's never explained how. We see them deal with the grief that comes with losing a child, but nothing more ever comes of it. The story then jumps several decades into the future, where an adult version of their eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), reflects back on his childhood on the anniversary of his brother's death, and finally culminates in a 20-minute interlude that depicts the creation of the universe – including the first signs of life on Earth and the age of dinosaurs – leading up to the birth of Jack. From there, the film races through his early years, eventually stopping in 1950s Waco, Texas to follow an adolescent Jack (played by Hunter McCracken) as he experiences firsthand how nature and grace shape our lives.
If that last bit sounds like something you’d expect to hear at a church service, it’s because “The Tree of Life” is unabashedly Biblical, from the title of the film itself, to the opening quote from the Book of Job. And while that alone should be enough to convince some people that this film isn’t for them, it’s the presentation of the material that’s most irritating, like when characters whisper to God, pondering their faith, while a blue-and-yellow mass of light swims across a black screen. It’s so utterly pretentious and boring that you’re left waiting for something – anything – to happen just so you don’t fall asleep to the hypnotic images of the music visualizer that Malick has chosen to represent God.
Even the aforementioned creation of the universe sequence is an absolute bore to sit through when viewed as part of the film, namely because it drags on for too long. It’s a pretty masterful symphony of breathtaking images that not even the greatest NOVA or Discovery Channel special could hope to replicate (including some pretty stunning photorealistic dinosaurs), but it just gets in the way of an otherwise fascinating familial drama. The same goes for the early scenes of Jack’s grieving parents and the ones where Sean Penn's adult Jack wanders through a mystical desert seeking to rediscover his faith. They both play their part in the bigger picture of Malick’s philosophical tale, but the film would have worked just fine (albeit on a decidedly different level) without them.
It’s a shame that Malick didn’t find Jack’s childhood years sufficient enough to exist as its own story, because it’s without a doubt the most engaging part of the movie. The acting is all first-rate – from Jessica Chastain’s almost angelic mother, to Brad Pitt’s oppressive but loving father (who conveys more emotion with something as simple as a protruded lip than any line of dialogue) – and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, the final product feels less like the grand-scale epic that Malick intended, and more like a college thesis paper on spirituality that’s missing a few pages. The movie is far too disjointed and abstract to enjoy in its current form, and although your mileage may vary based on how you feel about Malick's previous work, even with so much to admire about "The Tree of Life," there's even more to hate.
Three-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Terrence Malick may be famous for not doing any press for his movies, but that's no excuse for such a poor showing of bonus material. Although the 30-minute featurette, "Exploring 'The Tree of Life'," offers an intimate look at making the film with interviews from the cast and crew (as well as admirers like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher), fans will be rightfully disappointed, especially with rumors of a six-hour director's cut floating around. You do get a DVD and digital copy as well, but it's hardly a consolation.