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Days of Terrence Malick (Part 4): The Tree of Life (2011)

Yes, yes, I know my “Days of De Palma” series has been missing for several weeks.  Rest assured, I’ve already seen and written about several more Brian De Palma films, and those reviews will be posted on the site for the next several Fridays in a row.  But for now, as part of my “Catching up on 2011” project, it’s time at last to circle back to my “Days of Terrence Malick” series to write about his 2011 film The Tree of Life.

Click here for “Days of Terrence Malick” Part 1: The Thin Red Line (1998), here for Part 2: Badlands (1973), and here for Part 3: Days of Heaven (1978).

The Tree of Life is about, well, that’s sort of hard to say.  The bulk of the film chronicles the life of an American family living in Texas in the 1950s.  Brad Pitt plays the stern father of three boys, and Jessica Chastain (having quite a break-out year after also starring in The Help) plays his wife, the sensitive, loving mother.  We also get glimpses of one of those boys as an adult, played by Sean Penn.  We also witness the creation of the world and an extensive sequence set in the time of the dinosaurs… as well as the apparent ultimate destruction of the Earth and a possible glimpse into the afterlife.

I feel like I might sound somewhat dismissive of the film in the way I wrote that plot summary, and that’s not really fair.  The Tree of Life is a staggeringly beautiful film, and a staggeringly original one.  I can’t think of any other film I’ve ever seen in my life that is at all similar to this film (except perhaps some of Mr. Malick’s prior films).  Narrative and character development are apparently inconsequential to Mr. Malick.  The entire film, start-to-finish, is a montage.  Mr. Malick weaves imagery and sound together in the way of an artisan working an enormous loom.  The film has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, in the fashion of memories that slide together in one’s mind as one thought leads to another recollection leads to another, with no regard for chronological consistency or continuity.  What a bizarre, wonderfully unique way to make a movie!  When The Tree of Life delights it’s in realizing what a unique creation one is watching unfold, and allowing oneself to be swept along by the river of gorgeous imagery of life (and death).

But while The Tree of Life is beautiful and original and transporting, I also found it to be deathly dull and incredibly frustrating.  I really had to force myself to keep watching during the last hour.  I was enjoyably intrigued by the film, but with no story and no characters to hold onto, I found it hard to stay focused on the imagery as it unfolded, and it definitely took an exertion of will to make my way all the way through to the end,

And as I have commented in my reviews of Mr. Malick’s other films, I couldn’t help but thinking, throughout the film, that there must have been a really fabulous, compelling movie left on the cutting room floor.  Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain both give phenomenal performances, and I would have loved to watch a movie about their complex relationship with one another, and with their children.  Sean Penn barely utters a single line of dialogue in the film.  We see him constantly throughout the movie, wandering around and riding elevators, first in a tall building, then in a construction site, and then on a mysterious beach.  The character seems to have some importance, but ultimately we learn nothing about him and his story seems to go nowhere.  (I felt the same thing about Mr. Penn’s brief appearance in Mr. Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line.)  Surely at one point in the development of this film and/or the script, this adult depiction of one of Brad Pitt’s character’s sons had some sort of story-line, and there was some thread that connected his adult life with the period of his life being depicted (remembered?) from his youth in the ’50s.  But none of that made it into the finished film.

I am all for a complex, jumbled narrative, and I have no problem with a movie not spelling out clear connections between scenes, but rather relying on the audience to do some of that work.  But ultimately I do need to feel that the fractured narrative exists for a purpose, and that we are eventually given clarity on what lead to what and how everything fits together.  But a pursuit of clarity in The Tree of Life would be an exercise in futility.  The most striking example of this is the way that the first series of “scenes” (and I put quotation marks around the word scenes because the jumble of images I’m referring to can hardly be called scenes in the traditional sense) we see in the 1950s seem, if I’m not mistaken, to take place AFTER all the rest of the ’50s set sequences.  In those scenes, the mother (Jessica Chastain) gets word that one of her three sons has died, and we see some moments of her and her family struggling to deal with the effects of that loss.  But then the ’50s scenes seem to shift back to a moment when the boys were younger, and we never cut back to that post-death time-frame again.  I found this to be terribly frustrating, because not only do we get any more information as to exactly who died, how, and what that did to the family, which leaves those scenes floating without any context, but it also makes me wonder why any of those early scenes were in the movie at all!  Why waste our time with those sequences (of the family dealing with the death of one of the boys) if they just exist in a weird void and we never return to that story-line?

I admire the heck out of The Tree of Life. It’s a bold, uncompromisingly idiosyncratic film, and I have tremendous respect for the towering ambition the film represents.  Terrence Malick approaches cinema in a way that few, if any, other filmmakers do.  I’m glad to have seen The Tree of Life, but I can’t say that I can really recommend it that highly, nor that I have any plans to see it again.

I can’t sum up my feelings about Terrence Malick any better than Christopher Plummer (who was almost entirely cut out of Mr. Malick’s film The New World) does.  This is a must-watch:

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