Tree of Life: Skip it for the Real Thing
Why a brilliant director's award-winning film falls flat
By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 09, 2011 | Comments (4)
It's not often when a heralded filmmaker makes a stinker, and when it happens those of us in the biz are often reticent to say so. Art is subjective and one must be kind and tolerant and humble. It's even riskier when the film has won a major award, and when you know some of the players personally.
But Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, left me feeling, well, mad. I like these guys, a lot. But I was mad that I had spent nearly three hours - five with driving time - watching a montage of beautiful nature footage hung on a narrative more suited to a 10-minute short. To ask an audience to pay good money and to give you the gift of time from their lives as well, sitting for hours in the dark focusing on your film - that's arrogant to begin with, I'll admit it. But then to not give them an emotional journey worthy of that gift seems, to me, disrespectful.
I can already hear the cries of disagreement from some artsier reviewers, those postmodernists who like looking at ketchup on canvas and feel that we shouldn't need narrative, that our response to the film is what is important. S'il vous plaît. This is where it always gets sticky. But speaking as a writer, film is not completely subjective. It is a dance with the audience, and only a cad doesn't worry about how his partner is feeling.
This film is a meditation on the meaning of human existence in the cosmos, which is a bit of a navel-gazer to begin with so one must take extra care not to become self-indulgent and, sadly, the film fails in this regard. It has glorious nature footage. But the footage is not any more glorious than your typical Imax documentary, and at least there you get the benefit of a narrator giving you insight into the wonders of nature's beauty. Here, it's Terrence telling us about ... Terrence. It borrows liberally from the Hubble Space Telescope, rehashing famous images and lending no new light. We are supposed to feel the grief of a mother over the death of her son but the tragedy is lost on us because it is placed at the beginning of the film so we have no context for its meaning. We don't even know which of her sons died. This is supposed to form a chalice for the eternal questions of human existence: Why? Why me? Why did this happen? Why, God, why? These questions propel a metaphysical journey through a reverie of nature shots woven with the history of a family growing up in 1950s Waco, Texas, three boys with an artsy permissive mother and a strict, sometimes abusive father. After the two hour mark, every shot feels like the last one, oh but then here's another, and another, and another. It's not fully clear - though we can assume - which of the three boys grows up to be Sean Penn; or how the tragedy and the warring internal aspects of his character - the devil father and angel mother within - play out in his adult life - we hear him say they do in a voiceover but like the other key emotional action, we lack context, lack narrative, and so lack meaning. We don't care about his struggles because all we see of them is him walking around depressed.
It is stunning to me that the film won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and even more stunning that this happened despite several audience members booing the film.
I admire Terrence Malick for Badlands and The New World. I've loved Brad Pitt since Se7en. I admire Sean Penn for just about everything he's ever done, and especially his exquisite direction of Into The Wild which in my opinion could have won Best Picture. But I'm mad that so much time, talent, and treasure was spent on this.
If you want glorious nature, and a meditation on the meaning of life, you would be well served to head to a state park and take a three hour walk. Lie down on your back and stare up at the trees. Listen to the birds and insects. Feel the breeze. Smell the greens and the mulchy, wormy earth. Take off your shoes and step in a stream. Breathe deep, and contemplate the wonder of it all.