Ten World or Less Review: A rare movie. Strange, uneven and likely to rankle many.
Tree of Life isn’t for everyone, though it tries mightily to be about everything. It’s a Terrence Malick movie so if that excites you’ll have a lot to think on while taking this film in. If his previous efforts of the recent era held you enraptured, The Thin Red Line and The New World, then Tree of Life may be further proof for you that Malick is an unparalleled maker of astounding movies. Nothing less than a singular voice among the hordes of tone deaf movie makers of today. But if those films tried your patience and tested the limits of your movie watching ability, or you simply avoided them, you should do something else with your movie going time as even fans of Malick may find Tree of Life to be an exasperating experience. I feel that Line and World are two of the best movies of the past two decades but I found myself put out in places by this defiantly strange creation. Though it’s undeniably great in places, fascinating to dwell on and provides much more to talk about than what’s out there in this routinely pedantic summer movie season, it’s equal parts defiant, enthralling and frustrating.
Most of Life, I stress most, is an impressionistic tale of a small town Texas family in the 1950’s which some speculate mirrors the director’s own adolesence. Told with his trademark flourishes of fiercely nontraditional narrative style, repleate with shots of mother nature, cryptic and hushed voice overs offering insight into characters inner workings and a refusal to stage scenes as a movie going public is used to them, Life is textbook Malick. The story follows Jack, mostly as young boy played by Hunter McCracken and book ended as an adult by Sean Penn. Jack and his younger brothers are growing up under the increasingly harsh hand of his father played by Brad Pitt and loving, spiritual mother played by Jessica Chastain. Their duality of natures is a symbol for the paths of life available to us. It’s a story of how youth is molded by our parents, how our own instincts as people can be subverted and changed in difficult ways we may not like by those responsible for our mere existence. On this level it’s a compelling and fascinating drama that fits exquisitely into the Malick filmography. Resplendent with moments of unparalleled beauty that no other movie maker can equal Tree of Life flies in the face of typical flicks.
For much of the second and third act Malick follows through on his examination of Jack’s relationship between his mother and father. Pitt’s character is revealed to us in subtle, darkening shades, his nature turning from nurturing father to brutal authoritarian and we experience these changes throguh Jack’s eyes. It’s one of Pitt’s best parts in a career routinely peppered with great work. His father character is a man growing unfulfilled in life, his ambitions failing and feelings of irrelevance and being marginal take hold. In certain places Malick has captured the age old dynamic which pulls apart fathers, sons and entire families. This father’s lack of fulfillment in life taken out on his family in ways he never knew he was capable of or even intended to inflict is the most compelling element of the story. Chastain’s performance is less distinctly expressive in nature and with less of an arc to follow along with but she’s luminescent and touching none the less. She feels like more of an expression of soothing sensation than a real individual. Newcomer McCracken is a great find as well. A young actor with scores of pathos in his performance, he captures the angst and pain that comes with realizing your parents are people, not benevolent deities there to protect you from the world at large.
But not all of Life is structured this well or as rewarding to decipher. Mixed into the proceedings is a dizzying first act sequence which jumps into the creation of the universe, as well as a prologue which suddenly fly’s into the afterlife. The movie begins by revealing that one of Jack’s brother’s died at the young age of 19, a point largely underserved after that. It then cuts to the older version of Jack, played by Sean Penn, years after the death of his brother, clearly successful in life but going through some kind of spiritual crisis. Then the universe begins. The audience walks out. About 20 minutes into Life a trippy space odyssey through time which depicts the creation of the universe from the big bang through the time of the dinosaurs and beyond is interjected. Malick is driving home a metaphor about the eternal nature of existence, the beginning of life and the turmoil and conflict inherent in merely existing as it has always been. In short, the everything of all of us. It’s all very gorgeous and ponderous but it’s also exceedingly pretentious and it feels like a needless phantasm of artistic expression shoe horned into the movie for reasons we can only speculate. As ambitious and gutsy a detour it is, it still feels like a detour, heavy handed and in the way of the rest of the movie. Tree of Life doesn’t feel like it really begins until this Kubrick inspired sequence passes by. I’m sure those who fall in love with Tree will find this sequence illuminating and maybe even transcendent, but I feel Life is stronger when this is out of the way and free to move on with itself. It’s final scenes are also a quagmire of the befuddling and high minded. I won’t cover them in detail but I will say that the sensation they create doesn’t exactly pay off on a ground floor dramatic level. If your looking for real closure, seek elsewhere. The fog these sequences create hover over the whole experience.
My screening of Tree of Life had 11 walkouts. That’s about par for the course for Malick movies. His artistic flourishes drive many a man mad. You sit enraptured by the visual sensations he creates or you claw your eyes out and lose your shit because he refuses to stage drama the way 99.9% of the other guys do. Too many shots of birds I suppose. For a guy known for divisiveness Tree of Life may be his most challenging movie yet. I’d like to see it again, linger over it and think upon it some. I easily prefer his previous outings over this one but parts of Life are so strong I’m left to wonder if I undervalue the point of its loftier segments. Maybe I just don’t go for lofty these days. Tree of Life stands to be interpreted in many different ways and revisiting it again will probably provoke different thoughts and feelings. That’s not something you can say about movies very often anymore. With so many movies designed to be forgotten the minute the credits role, it’s fascinating to come across something so defiant and perplexing.