31 05 2011

Terrence Malick spent six years making THE TREE OF LIFE, which, coming from the guy with a twenty-year gap between his second and third films, is an anomaly. In every other way, though, THE TREE OF LIFE is just what you’d expect from Terrence Malick. From the moment it begins, with images of natural beauty accompanied by ponderous voiceover, it’s clear this is more of the same. Much more.

This is primarily the story of three brothers, the O’Briens, growing up in 1950’s Waco, Texas, but to put this into proper context, we’re recited the Terrence Malick Book o’ Genesis – the creation of earth itself, the dinosaurs, molten lava, boiling seas, evolution in all its sublime horror. The brutality of nature is then reflected in the boys’ vicious father, Brad Pitt. How will his sons go? Will they follow the same muddy path? Or will they transcend the “way of nature,” as our opening narration describes it, and embody the “way of grace?” And with violent imperfections such as Pitt roaming the earth and procreating, what’s the point of going all graceful anyhow? What’s the point? Of any of it, really?

Awww, the poster ruins the whole plot!

THE TREE OF LIFE is a sweeping attempt at answering The Big Questions through cinema (more so even than BRIDESMAIDS,) and it’s not to be dismissed. This is bold stuff – bold for what it covers, bold for what it leaves out. But Malick, the most notorious perfectionist at work in Hollywood (or wherever his bunker is,) presents his film as a universal thesis statement – one that runs long at that – so its sizeable flaws are laid bare. That’s the rub with Malick, in my wee Spiel-pinion. Remove story structure in a narrative medium and you’re relying entirely on image, and your ability to create thematic connection without use of sympathetic protagonists. Tall order, that. And of course, it was precisely the problem with Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE, a war story in which characters appeared and disappeared, none of them distinct, identifiable, or sympathetic: in other words, a war story in which it was impossible to care who lived or died. Whoops.

The O'Brien family, shown here in the climactic third act bank heist sequence

Malick’s newest does better in this area; we have the young Jack (Hunter McCracken – no relation to Big Ern,) experimenting with the limits of his world – and his troubled relationship with father Pitt – as our ‘A’ story. The scenes involving Pitt work, because we viewers are anchored by recognizable characters, not just transfixed by slithering axolotls. But even as he flirts with a non-alienating storyline, Malick undermines himself. Take Mrs. O’Brien, (newcomer Jessica Chastain,) who is meant to represent that aforementioned “way of grace.” She’s the family’s free-spirited mother with a peaceful connection to nature – a contrast with her husband’s struggle to master it (the struggle they pass along to their children…) It’s not hard to grasp the idea of Chastain’s character by the end of the film. But what do we actually witness Chastain doing, for 2 hours and 20 minutes? Communing with nature, bonding with her progeny, yet refusing to defend them against their abusive father. And then? Mourning the loss of one of her boys. (Which boy dies, and how he dies, are left frustratingly ambiguous.) And yet we’re never shown any single scene in which Mrs. O’Brien is effectively maternal. In the timeless words of The Bard, there’s no action. We’re shown Mrs. O’Brien loves her children, and she has several whispery voiceovers saying so, but she does nothing to save them. So why should we care? THE TREE OF LIFE isn’t a film completely about humans, but I imagine its viewership is going to be 100% human. Shouldn’t that be taken into account on the filmmaker’s part? Or are we just barking up the wrong tree?

A still from BRIDESMAIDS, which I still want to see

Chastain’s character is poorly drawn – but not one nearly as much as Sean Penn’s. He plays adult Jack, and we catch up to him in modern day, on the anniversary of his brother’s death. As far as I can tell, Penn’s action in TREE is walking around a big, airy office space and looking very very confused. Malick’s camera spins round Jack as he turns and walks, and looks out a window, and sits, then walks, then turns, and turns, and looks. Spin, yuppie, spin! Why are you so confused about the office, Sean Penn? Is it your first day? Coffee’s this way, recycling’s over here, now get to work. Penn’s scenes act as a framing device with a surprisingly trite metaphysical resolve (no better than CONTACT,) and one gets the sense that the only reason his part was left in the film at all was to add sales value. But poor Sean, he’s so out of it, here. To quote the guy who was laughing hysterically beside me on the way out of the theater, “Sean Penn hasn’t reminded me of Spicoli in 20 years!” Amen, guy. Again, Malick obviously had an idea of what this character’s actions were meant to represent – this is all allegory – but Penn’s scenes, as scenes, aren’t even remotely compelling.

Let it never be said that Terrence Malick isn’t a master of shooting trees from low angles. So, THE TREE OF LIFE must be his magnum opus – because FUCK are there a lot of low angle tree shots here. If you possess patience, and a spiritual gap you need caulked, you may fall under the spell of THE TREE OF LIFE. (The Cannes jury did.) But even as it wowed me, it failed to move me. It’s that special kind of masterpiece – the kind I don’t particularly want to see again.


Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Sunday, May 31, 8:10pm showing