The Tree of Life is the latest critical hit from the well-respected director Terrence Malick, known for his reclusiveness and long spans of time between movies (it took nearly twenty years to get from Days of Heaven to The Thin Red Line). I have no idea how the guy gets his films produced, but he’s lucky enough to have all the pictures in his tiny filmography adored by [most] movie critics. This latest film is his ambitious, ambiguous, artsy-fartsy answer to what the meaning of life is (or possibly better termed as the non-answer). Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain star as husband and wife, with three children (one of whom grows up and kind of narrates the film – played by Sean Penn in more of a cameo role than a full fledged character). The film has a disjointed, non-narrative structure, and juxtaposes two main things together: this family growing up and maturing in 1950’s Texas with often beautiful images of nature and the universe (jellyfish, trees, nebulas, volcanoes – it’s almost like watching the Discovery Channel).
It’s clear that Malick is a visionary director, and I believe watching this film that he meticulously planned and executed every shot exactly the way he wanted. Because of this, the film could not possibly be “flawed,” so I’m just spouting off what I feel about it. Personally I would’ve liked there to have less time spent in “awe” of everything. The film takes itself with way too much egotism and breaks out a religious-toned operatic soundtrack as if to force us into loss of breath. The images are beautiful, yes, they are more often than not wallpaper worthy – but simply showing us pretty thing after pretty thing gets tiresome. What I got from the bookend montages of mother nature is that we are all somehow connected with the universe, and it is kind of interesting to talk about in a post-watch conversation, but actually sitting there, looking at the eighteenth long take of a galactic cloud poof I wanted to go to sleep.
As for the main plot line, it was mostly just meandering nostalgia (Malick was born in Texas in this same era) mixed with a skewed coming of age story. We see many different, unconnected events (at least plot wise) concerning this family that help to define how we see the world around us, all the while affirming that we are just microcosms of the universe (cue the “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python). This story, although it is the one thing with characters and anything resembling a plot, was not enjoyable to me. There was very little dialogue, most likely due to the “sensory” aspect of the film, and most of the words are spoken in hushed voiceovers by a couple of the characters. For one, this made it hard to hear what was being said, and two, it didn’t help to hold my attention. The movie dragged on and on, with unanswerable questions and a trying-real-hard-to-be-poignant “haunting” narration.
Lots of critics have been endlessly praising The Tree of Life, many saying it may be the best of the 2010’s (it was handed the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, its highest award). To me it seemed more like an art school student’s first attempt than a masterpiece. I did love the cinematography (as I do in all of Malick’s films), the acting (especially from the kids; newcomer Hunter McCracken is way too intense-looking for a kid, but in a good way) and the ambition of giving pieces of the universe a connective tissue, but I just can’t help that it slowly lulled me towards counting sheep. Towards the end of the film I kept thinking ‘This must be the last scene’…only for four more to spawn. It’s destined to be released on the prestigious Criterion Collection, and philosophy professors will probably be quick to show it to their incoming students, but I personally find The Tree of Life to be overrated bullshit on a stick.