The reviews that The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s new film, has received are the kind that directors often dream about but seldom receive. A. O. Scott, of the New York Times, for instance, calls the film a masterpiece and likens Malick to Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Hart Crane. Even Time Out New York, perhaps our critically least discriminating publication, says The Tree of Life “posits an eternal conflict between nature and grace.”
And it’s not just the newspapers – The Tree of Life won the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Hum! Well, your correspondent can only scratch his head and wonder; perhaps there was more cocaine than usual at Cannes this year? Perhaps Scott desperately needs a vacation (or received a terrific Christmas present from Malick)? Perhaps Time Out New York … well, you get the picture. However, don’t be deceived. The Tree of Life can be dismissed with a scant four words: don’t believe the hype.
It is rare that I have had to endure such a self-congratulatory orgy of self indulgence, such a fetid stew of pretention and muddy thinking. For the two and a half hours of its running time, your correspondent could have spent his time more constructively repeatedly pounding his head against his coffee table.
At any rate, on with the show. The plotline of The Tree of Life is a simple affair. In the vast cosmos, the world is created. Then, life evolves on the planet Earth. Then, dinosaurs wade through streams, seemingly very happy. Then, in Eisenhower America, Brad Pitt is something of a disappointment as a father. Then, one of his surviving sons grows up to be Sean Penn, despite the fact that he’s about 10-to-15 years too young for a 1950s boyhood. Then, the cosmos ages and life on this planet ends. And then, once everyone is dead, we all walk on the beach and run into each other once again. Slow curtain, the end. Oh, I think, because there is a haze of reddish-orange light at the finale, perhaps the whole thing begins again? I’m not sure. I only know that the audience at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York’s Upper West Side ran for the exits as if the the place was on fire. (Side note about Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It is one of the few havens left that features films geared towards adults. However, they are completely incapable of managing large crowds, directing traffic, or adequately training staff. Add to that, I have seen home theaters with larger screens. Audiences for such fare as Thor seem to get all the perks.)
At any rate, the problems with The Tree of Life are too numerous and extensive to be completely cataloged here. Suffice it to say that we never really get a bead on any of these people, so the supposed tragedy (or grace notes, if you will) of their lives never resonate in any profound way. Add to that, Malick depends on camera trickery and classical music to convey a sense of faux profundity when actually he has little to say and even less to show. The camera moves more than The Blair Witch Project, and we often leave scenes so rapidly, that we have no escalation of dramatic intent. We also have no idea of what kind of man Penn has become, other than he seems to be haunted by visions of his late brother. He seems to have a wife -- a girlfriend? A gracious waitress? But his women-problems are only alluded to – we have no idea about his story, or even why he’s telling it. And all of Malick’s cosmic small-town-America-equals-the cosmos was done before in Wilder’s Our Town, and much better, thank you very much. There is also a lot of pseudo-Christian hoo-hah thrown into the mix, as well, which may mean something to someone. At any rate … it’s the old Post Modern dodge of being obscure and hoping the rubes read something into it.
What works? Well …, the dinosaurs are nice. It’s almost enough to wish one were watching some truly wretched, but at least honest piece of hokum like When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth. The space pictures sure are pretty, but Kubrick did it first and better. Oh, and small-towns in 1950s America sure were nice. And Brad Pitt sure looks good in a hat. And … well, I’m sure there’s something else worthwhile if I could only think of it.
The performances are dire, but here I blame Malick more than Pitt, Jessica Chastain (as his wife) or Penn. They are never on camera long enough to build up a head of steam, and the parts are so thinly written that the poor actors are left adrift. Only Hunter McCracken as son Jack manages to shine, and that’s simply our complicity and celebration of his youth. However, with a screenplay and director behind him, the young man may one day fulfill this promise.
If you must go to The Tree of Life because it is a critical darling, don’t say you haven’t been warned. One final note to A. O. Scott – you owe me $12.