I was really excited to see “The Tree of Life” because I haven’t expected many good things from movies recently generally though this year in particular seems like it would be a doozy. So Terrence Malick’s most recent, more contemplative film seemed like some kind of gem to standout this very rough summer. Ultimately, however (and to my disappointment I might add) I have to give this film a B. B for boring. B for beautiful. B for (possibly) Best Picture. And B for 139 minutes. Although I guess that last one doesn’t really feature a B. While I was disappointed with this movie I don’t think that it’s for the film’s lack of substance or trying; this is a strong film directed by a master. It’s simply not that good despite the fact that it is fiercely interesting.
Reviewers seem to find some summary important so here’s mine. “The Tree of Life” breaks down into three stages which are relatively mixed and mingled. There’s the most dominate 1950s suburban Texas experience; a child’s strained relationship, in particular with his father, though also a heavily internalized battle between a parent who seems a conduit for a perfect childhood opposed with an antagonized parent who thwarts such experiences. There’s the least used Sean Penn segment which offers a system by which the audience can gain access to the predominant, past events; this section falls flat with it’s unlimited potential and minimal use. And finally there’s the most purely visual, History of the Universe section which is supposed to lend a universal or global (pun perhaps intended) credence to the argument Malick is making. All of these parts come and go, sometimes as they please, sometimes coupled with an image of light shining through a ghostly medium. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re looking for a narrative film about reconciling the past you’ll probably be better served with “The Hangover Part II” than this because although this synthesis of past and present with somewhat archetypal characters is what’s happening in the movie in some literal sense, it’s not sufficiently paired with what anyone with two ounces of grey matter would call a plot or story to make these events relevant to the true subject of the film.
So forget about narrative filmmaking. Who needs it anyways? On some level I can simply assume that cinema is a fundamentally visual art form and therefore construct visual juxtapositions (perhaps paired with the music of Philip Glass) that may (or may not if you’re so “artistically” inclined) have meaning without the cohesion of a plot or even an argument. Just ask Godfrey Reggio. But this isn’t what Malick is doing. It’s close, as the frenetic construction of scenes past and present in one man’s life and disjointed passage of cosmic time are shown with minimal support from dialog or identifiable location prove. But it seems more like Malick wants the audience to realize a scope upon which the message or real subject of his film operates. It’s fine because, as we’ll see, he is making a point but it comes at the expense of the cohesion between images something like a narrative lends itself to.
Malick is attempting to make a specific point with this film. It’s one purely of philosophy and isn’t shaped by the characters or the passage of time which is the point. In one of the few pieces of dialogue in the film (about 90 percent of the speaking in the film can be seen in the trailer) right at the beginning it’s said that there are “two ways through life--the way of nature and the way of grace.” It is also suggested that these are some what exclusive terms; you can only be one or the other. Eventually the principle dichotomy becomes one of good and evil. Generally the details of the events in “The Tree of Life” suggest the presence of good and evil characteristics in the mundanities of life as Malick shows us the different parenting approaches of a mother (Jessica Chastain) and a father (Brad Pitt) in 1950s Waco. Further Malick seems to view good and evil and the subordinate qualities he associates with them as innate to all life. This argument would suggest the reason behind a) the evident, though somewhat unexplained in terms of motivation, conflict between characters b) the fact that the Everyman character and, I can only assume, protagonist describes a “wrestling” between the figures in his life which represent good and bad qualities and c) the dinosaurs.
If it’s these arguments that are the principle subject of “The Tree of Life”, what could be so ineffective as the archetypal character schema Malick presents? I am inclined to say that the use of characters to represent presumed constants such as good and evil is the perfect way to approach such topics. One might, for example, pitt a noble warrior against one who has been tainted by evil in a battle where the noble warrior is tempted by the potential power that evil has but maintains his conviction by allowing himself to fall to temporary weakness that he might defeat the evil tainted warrior another day. Suffice it to say though, such a scene is made far more meaningful and potent with a line like: “Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy” (Darth Vader). But in a movie like “The Tree of Life” such a line seems impossible to pull off with a straight face so, though the characters are heavily archetypal they fail to “fulfill their destiny” as it were and “rule the galaxy” (Ibid.).
Similarly I don’t think that the potential of the continuity was fully explored. There may not be much in terms of a broad narrative, but time is clearly very linear and important in this movie despite it’s mixed up and prodigious scope. Further people have a sense of continuity about their life; it’s why we draw timelines in history classes. So continuity might be used in conjunction with the cosmic and prehistoric imagery to provide further access to the conflict within anyone about the presumed constants of good and evil. Heck, if I wanted to use an actor such an end, I might just offer such a role to Sean Penn because he’d be able to pick up both the nuance of everyday life and be able to combine it with the sense of urgency most people seem to have about the simple facts of their lives and thus be able to bridge the gaps in time and space that are inherent to the text of my argument. Alas, I may need to give Penn more than ten minutes of screen time, but that seems like a small price to pay for a better movie.
Of course, one character can only do so much. I could hardly expect Sean Penn alone to explicate all the unexplained, and learn all the unknowns. It is for this reason that I suggested earlier harder hitting archetypes, but simply probing more characters by ever so slightly more telling than simply showing might also lend to “The Tree of Life” the necessary dive to characters to keep them as subtle as they are. This equilibrium was the case in Malick’s earlier “The Thin Red Line” where a multitude of characters, some silent, was always understandable because somewhere was Nick Nolte barking orders.
A good portion of “The Tree of Life” is devoted to scenes which ponder relatively ordinary life events. Malick’s filmmaking abilities handle this exceptionally well as he moves from scenes of brooding to scenes of joy with the deftness of a master and consistent attention to the look of the image on the screen. Though Malick is fast and loose with the camera work, shaky with his composition, and perhaps even dizzying with the simplest actions the look is stunning and purposeful. Light always plays realistically and brilliantly putting to shame the far more drab look of some of his earlier films. These elements are the real strong side of “The Tree of Life” in that they really showcase the skill of the director and keep the viewer interested simply in the hopes of seeing something ordinary made spectacular.
The real problem is that Malick can’t seem to have all things with this movie. I think this may be the most Malick of his films in that it is so clearly his thought at it’s heart and a visual style to make it work but in doing that he forgot something that has become important to movies that will star people like Pitt and Penn and that is the narrative and the cohesion to images that can be brought about by characters who can speak, if only occasionally, to the images being presented. “The Tree of Life” gave me a lot to think about and it wasn’t bad. I’d say I’m even forgiving when faced with movies such as this. Yet Malick’s most recent film seems somehow forgetful of what some of the potentials of film are.