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For Your Consideration: 'The Tree of Life'

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life has inspired critical raves -- not least, winning the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival -- and audience ire. The latter was enough of a concern that, when I saw it this past weekend, I experienced a first in my movie-going life: an employee of the theater announced, before the movie began, that the film had almost no dialogue and was "artsy" and that people should leave now if they wanted an exchange or a refund, and not after the film when they could not receive one. A few people in the theater did leave in the first hour or so, and the man next to me, obviously there because his girlfriend had chosen the movie, kept obsessively checking the time on his cell phone. The rapturous reviews of the film from some critics, claiming that the film is "a form of prayer" (Roger Ebert) or that Malick has taken us back to "a time when movies mattered" (Richard Corliss), are irresponsible in the sense that they do not take into account that this film, in spite of its considerable beauty, will annoy and frustrate many viewers. Rave and gush if you like, but at least make clear that you should not drag your boyfriend to it on date night.

Malick, a brilliant, intellectual man who studied philosophy and was a Rhodes Scholar, is the sort of filmmaker who makes difficult films. He apparently conceived this movie in the late 1970s but only began shooting it in the last decade, reportedly editing the film to a length of 3.5 hours and doing pre-screenings before deciding that he was unable to finish it in time for the 2010 Cannes Festival (some of the cut footage may be in this version of the trailer). As he completed it, at a length of 2.5 hours that feels much longer, it fails because it is essentially two movies. One is possibly autobiographical in some sense, about a boy growing up, as Malick did, in a rather strict Episcopalian household in Waco, Texas; the other is about the history of the universe, the conversation of characters in the film with the Creator, asking age-old human questions like, "Why did my brother have to die when he was only 19 years old?" There were even rumors that the cosmic story was originally planned as a completely separate film called The Voyage of Time: if true, Malick should have kept them separate.

The Texas part of the story is compelling because of the square-jawed, buzz-cut, unflinching performance of Brad Pitt as the father of the family of three boys. A failed classical musician -- at one point we see him playing Bach at the organ, and he regularly plays LPs during the family's dinners -- he now works for a plant in town, as an engineer, and is constantly in search of the next patent and a ticket to the wealth he covets around him. The character's failings as a father, as he terrorizes his sons for the least fault in their posture at the table, their yard work, their weakness, their failure to call him Sir, is uncomfortably recognizable to anyone who has been a father. He is strict and harsh because he believes that he is helping his children become strong, but he does not realize until it is too late how his overbearing insistence has damaged both his wife (the ethereal Jessica Chastain, whose feet metaphorically -- and, at least once, literally -- do not touch the ground) and his children, Jack (played for most of the film with ambivalent anger by Hunter McCracken), R.L. (a seraphic Laramie Eppler, who could easily be Brad Pitt's own son, so strong is the resemblance), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). Fiona Shaw and Sean Penn have largely inconsequential turns as the grandmother and adult version of Jack, respectively.

The problem is not the unusual narrative structure, with very little dialogue, lots of gorgeous but tangential imagery, and disembodied voice-overs. Malick used a similar process in The New World, and that movie had all of the narrative force that long sections of The Tree of Life lack. (The same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, worked on both films.) The problem is that in including the story of cosmic history, in rather pretty but abstract imagery with ghostly music, in which corpuscles pulsing through veins become almost indistinguishable from strands of Hubble-imaged galaxies, Malick has shortchanged the human story. The first half-hour of the film was unbearable, as one could not get a handle on the Texas story and the camera strayed, beautifully and with expensive digital effects, through the story of creation and evolution, somehow mixed together, including the dinosaurs and their extinction. The middle part of the film was absolutely gripping, leading to a deadly final half-hour as the grief of the family -- one of the sons dies, in a not really explained way -- reaches an end steeped in metaphysical bathos on the shores of paradise.

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According to critic Alex Ross, writer-director Terrence Malick is an "avid classical listener," and it shows in The Tree of Life. One of the most striking parts of his earlier film The New World was the use of the Rhine music from Wagner's Das Rheingold, and music has great import in this movie, too. The swirling Moldau music from Smetana's Ma Vlast makes a scene of happy children cavorting in a moment of light-hearted freedom; Couperin's Les Barricades Mistérieuses, a character piece from the 6e Ordre, runs through the film like a Leitmotif, played by the father at the piano and echoed by the middle son on the guitar; most of all, settings of the Requiem Mass (Berlioz's Grande messe des morts and Zbigniew Preisner's Lacrimosa, the latter composed for filmmaker and Preisner's collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski), Holy Minimalist pieces by John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, and portions of Mahler's first symphony signify grief and the questioning of the great beyond. (See this complete list of the music used in the movie.)

In a sense Malick has created a film in the form of a transcendental symphony, following the model of Beethoven and Mahler. (My new favorite French film critic, Didier Péron, noted the same similarity in his review of The Tree of Life -- Malick, Symphonie n°5, May 17 -- for Libération.) The sprawling length, the gravity of tone, and the cosmic reach of the film all seem to recall it, but can it work in film format? One senses that the movie would not have nearly the same solemn scope without its score, and that even with it, it cannot quite grasp what it is reaching for. As Raymond Knapp put it, writing about another example of this kind of work, Carl Nielsen's Inextinguishable, "there is no evidence (so far) that the cosmos actually appreciates any of the symphonies that have been offered up to it."


Todd Babcock said...

This is a really respectful and thoughtful review. It is also fair.
One wants to submit to this experience completely but is dragged to and fro with what feels like 3 films clipped down to one.
I champion Malick and, guiltily, enjoy this 'walk-out' phenomenon as it is so absurd.
"Be warned...this is artsy."
I enjoyed it but fell something far short of rapture (or prayer).

Brian said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review. Oddly enough, while I share your feelings about Tree of Life on the whole, it's for exactly the opposite reasons. I loved the abstract birth of the universe. It seemed wild and unexpected and I kept thinking where the hell is this going?

All of this was so much better than the rather predictable 1950s coming of age in TX stuff that has populated a million other films (This Boy's Life comes to mind though that was a bit more dramatic.) Here I was bored and desperately wanted things to return to the exciting and unpredictable.

Robert Valente said...

I think this is a great review, and it tracks with my impressions in many areas. The film is too ambitious, and Malick has not managed to distill the essence down in to the final version of the film. I think that Kubrick was largely successful in doing so in "2001: A Space Odyssey", as was Gaspar Noe in "Irreversible" - both of which dealt with infinity and the rebirth of man in juxtaposition with an earthly storyline. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain were marvelous but stifled by the editing. The adapted music was brilliant, particularly the Resphigi, Mahler, and Berlioz.

I think that one would be better off spending the time watching 2001 again rather than tackling this film, which in the end is so disconnected that it does not satisfy.