I'm still processing The Tree of
Life - still turning over its many ingredients, layers, and moments.
The fact that it's been two weeks since the screening and my brain is
still stewing means that the film is special and unusual. Yet I don't
think I wholly enjoyed Terrence Malick's Palm d'Or-winning sixth feature.
The Tree of Life is everything and nothing - a moving masterpiece
and a magisterial mess, gloppy with pretension yet riddled with some
of the most jarring and memorable imagery ever committed to film. Good
performances and bad dialogue live side by side in Terrence Malick's
sixth and most maddening film, as do profound beauty and incoherent
editorial choices. The crux of the movie's soulful confusion is that
it is both a visionary cosmic statement and an apologia for suburban
averageness. The overarching concept here - that religious meaning and
spiritual enlightenment can be found on the most unlikely and unexpected
city block - is not new, nor is it alien to depiction on film. But the
specifics of Malick's film are divided into two prongs - one dramatic
and specific, and the other abstract and impressionistic. In the case
of The Tree of Life, this bifurcation is hampered by excessive
cutting and, ultimately, a glut of imagery that, despite its high quality,
results in a sense of visual over-stimulation and a muddying of the
film's thematic waters. Malick's ambition is rare and impressive. But
his editorial eye continues to suffer from benign but distracting spasms.
The Tree of Life is a mosaic. Its non-linear narrative is spiked
with sequences that somewhat abstractly depict the formation of the
solar system and the beginnings of life on earth. The narrative portion
of the film (which accounts for the majority of its screen time) concerns
the lives of a five-person nuclear family, the O'Briens, who live in
the suburbs of west Texas. The close-knit family consists of Mom (Jessica
Chastain), Dad (Brad Pitt), and three young boys. The oldest, Jack (Hunter
McCracken), is the key figure in the film. A troubled boy, Jack is torn
by his love of his parents - the unconditional kind for his mother,
and a conflicted love/hate for his domineering but loving father.
Pitt's performance is outstanding. His role is wide-ranging and emotional,
and the actor brings an authentic sense of character and period to the
part. It is a performance of incredible depth and breadth, truly some
of the best from any leading Hollywood star in some time. As Mom, Chastain
is the object of her son's love and worship - and at the same time
a second-class citizen in terms of her dynamic with Pitt's character.
Put-upon, and occasionally abused by her husband, Chastain is physically
vulnerable and morally inviolate. Pitt's character is very much the
opposite - a pillar of physical strength with an occasionally expedient
attitude toward morality.
Malick indulges in two of his favorite cinematic devices: a reliance
on vague, lyrical voice-over to solidify the film's themes, and a preference
for classical music on the soundtrack. Malick's other films, I think,
benefit from these devices, whereas The Tree of Life does not.
The film's striking imagery and subtle themes don't require the storytelling
crutch of narration to sustain them. In fact, the voice-over is distracting
rather than additive. On the subject of music, Malick has a well-known
knack for nimbly inserting classical pieces in his films that help create
an immediate mood and connection to the story: Days of Heaven
uses Saint-Saëns' "Aquarium" from The Carnival of the
Animals to beautiful and creepy effect, and the opening of The
New World features the "Vorspiel" from Wagner's Das
Rheingold as the spine-tingling sound of the first meeting between
the English and Native Americans. The Tree of Life, on the other
hand, feels as if it is cut to the musical selections. At times, there
is a feeling that Malick is more interested in creating mini-films around
the music than in making a cohesive film.
I say that because, in the end, The Tree of Life is not
cohesive. It is in no way a bad film, but it does not feel complete.
It feels like it is missing pieces here and there, and it feels like
it is redundant in other areas. We spend too long milling around in
outer space and in the oceans of the early Earth. We spend too long
in the O'Brien household, watching the same sets of family dynamics
play out over and over again. That Terrence Malick has made a sloppy,
messy film is not a surprise or a disappointment, for Malick's last
three films quite plainly flirt with disaster - they are chunky, disordered,
and unpredictable. But The Tree of Life misses the mark because
Malick does not seem to have gone far enough in terms of the film's
conception: the cosmic inferno and the scenes of early animal life are
memorable, but those sequences do not sufficiently interact with the
common travails of a single and seemingly isolated family in 1950s west
Texas, despite the fact that I enjoyed watching most of what was on
the screen - especially the dinosaurs.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.