Here’s an actual exchange between me and a stranger, walking out of The Tree of Life:
Stranger: Excuse me, sorry. I got here about ten minutes late. Did one of the brothers die?
Me: Uh huh.
Stranger: Which one?
Me: I dunno (shrugs, leaves).
Let me officially begin this review by announcing that I’ve finally broken my “Never Walk Out on a Movie” rule. The fact that I sat through the entirety of The Tree of Life is a technicality. You see, I also have a policy against annoying my fellow moviegoers; so when, twenty minutes into this nearly two-and-a-half-hour odyssey of pretension, I got the urge to look up show times for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris on my phone, I remembered that such behavior is inexcusable. So I slumped down and ate my truckload of Brussel sprouts, as it were.
You may have heard that writer/director Terrence Malick’s new film about how the struggles of a 1950s Texas family play into the creation and destruction of our very own planet Earth is terribly important. People may have even gushed over the amazing spiritual themes, deep analyses of the human condition and cool dinosaurs that are all over the art-house event of the summer.
If anyone has tried to sell you that shit, feel free to send me their name and address so I can personally slap them in the face. The Tree of Life is as deep as the box of Dots I almost threw at the screen in frustration, and all the pretty photography in the world can’t make up for Malick’s failure to tell a coherent story.
Oh, but he wants it to! We get lots of footage of quasars and lava and plants growing and clouds rolling by—all inter-cut with scenes from the life of the troubled O’Brien family. Little Jack (Hunter McCracken) butts heads with his hard-nosed, engineer dad (Brad Pitt) and seeks comfort in the embrace of his mother (Jessica Chastain). Through the course of the film, we see Jack become a bully to his two younger brothers and grow up to be some sort of depressed businessman (Sean Penn).
Malick’s grand ruse is his inclusion of the planet-forming/cell-division/dinosaur stuff. None of this has any thematic resonance with Jack’s story, unless you count the fact that, yes, all of the people in this film descended from cosmic goo. Some will argue that there must be some greater significance simply because it’s all mashed together with the main story; but I have no problem calling that out as nonsense.
The proof lies in Jack’s story, a clichéd horror-behind-the-picket-fences yarn we’ve seen a thousand times before done in at least twelve more effective iterations. Malick again draws attention away from his problems by jumping around in time; from Jack’s toddler-hood to his pre-teen years to adulthood; and back and forth, ad nauseam, until we’re meant to give up looking for narrative integrity and “just go with it, man.” I’d be okay with that if, in the final analysis, the story held up.
Let’s start with Jack’s age. The Tree of Life is set “in the 1950s”; I know this as much from Wikipedia and IMDb as from the film itself—along with many other facts of the story. Sean Penn was born in 1960, anywhere from one to ten years after this movie’s time period. Jack is about eleven years old for most of the story, placing his date of birth sometime in the ’40s; meaning Jack could be as old as 70. Does Penn strike you as “dream casting” for this role?
Okay, sure, you could call that a nitpick (I call it paying attention). But let’s talk about the Amazing Appearing/Disappearing Third Brother. As hinted at in my opening anecdote, there was some confusion as to which of Jack’s brothers dies in the movie. Early on, we see three boys playing in a tree (of life). We come to know them as Jack and his siblings. In the next scene, Jack’s mother receives a telegram informing her that one of her sons has died. I naturally assumed that there was another boy that we hadn’t yet seen who’d passed away; but two scenes later, Old Jack informs us that his brother died at the age of nineteen, and we come to find out that the O’Briens only ever had the three kids; meaning there’s a seamless, twelve-year(ish) leap between a scene of kids playing in the yard and another of their mom getting a telegram saying that one of them has died.
So we have one dead brother. We flash back to Jack as a toddler, helping his parents welcome a newborn to the family. We then flash forward to three brothers running around the house. In a later scene, the dad fails to save a boy from drowning at the local swimming pool, and we cut to the funeral, where Jack and his first brother solemnly walk with their dad away from the church.
“My God!” I thought, “They lost the youngest brother!” Oh, wait. No, there he is, skipping into frame. So who died at the pool? Some random kid from the neighborhood, I guess.
I don’t know if the youngest brother dies in the future, but Old Jack sure is mopey about something his dad said about his dead brother. We never find out, but I hope he’s not still clinically depressed over someone who died over thirty years ago—especially since the two of them never really got along (Jack once coerced his brother into sticking a wire hanger into a lamp socket, and also nearly shot off his finger with a BB gun).
But I guess he’d be messed up anyway, coming from a strict household with a violent, tyrannical dad. Except it isn’t until more than halfway through the movie that we learn of the father’s abusiveness. He’s a disciplinarian, sure, and kind of an aloof dick, but not a belts-and-welts kind of guy. In fact, his blowing up at the kids over dinner and making with the fists felt like the most forced, unnatural thing in the world.
Where did the rage come from? And why did the wife, a few scenes later and out of absolutely fucking nowhere, decide to grow some guts and defend her sons—once and never again? These are questions that are typically answered using something called “storytelling”. Malick is interested in creating moments, and not so much in mapping out how anyone arrived at them (despite allusions to a cosmic something-or-other). We learn nothing about how the parents met; when they fell out of love; why they had so many kids; what happened after the kids moved out; what became of Jack between the ages of twelve and, um, “fifty”; or any of the other myriad questions one would reasonably ask if watching all of this unfold chronologically.
Seriously, The Tree of Life plays as if someone threw the first draft of the Revolutionary Road screenplay in the air and then created a new outline by re-numbering the pages, based on where they landed; to make this a perfect analogy, imagine half those pages flying away in a heavy wind, and a panicked intern suggesting that Malick pad the run-time with deleted scenes from Nova.
Speaking of which, has anyone clued Terrence Malick in to the home-theatre revolution? He realizes most cinephiles now have high-definition televisions, right? That we can turn on Discovery at home for eight hours instead of having to trek to the theatre to see beautiful nature footage? Just checking.
For all the hype and substance that beret-sporting hipsters have tacked onto this movie, The Tree of Life is nothing more than an art-house Avatar, a gorgeous-looking diversion with all the mental and spiritual nutritional value of a Twinkie. The only thing that opened my mind during the interminable 138 minutes was reconciling the fact that Jessica Chastain was not Bryce Dallas Howard—really, look at them; it’s spooky.
This movie seriously pissed me off. I’m a sucker for big-idea pictures, and am not one of these ADD mutants who needs everything spelled out for them in a steady flow of action. But there’s a big difference between The Tree of Life, which thinks it has something to say, and films like Enter the Void and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pack every frame and every curious shot with multiple meanings that can be discerned by watching the films themselves; it’s not necessary to read synopses and watch actor interviews to find out what you’re supposed to get out of the experience. The Tree of Life is about as accessible and important as a Calvin Klein “Eternity” commercial, and a thousand times longer.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 06/21/11.]