I finally worked up the desire to go see The Tree of Life on Friday. No easy feat. I'd read the reviews. I'd heard about the standing ovations and chorus of boos that greeted it at the Cannes Film Festival. Going in, I thought it would be visually brilliant, but arty, pretentious, abstract, and a chore to sit through. Leaving, I thought...well, pretty much the same thing.
Look, writer-director Terrence Malick is an immensely talented guy. Within the first minute of The Tree of Life, you know that you're in the hands of a world-class filmmaker working at the top of his game. I have no doubt that the movie I saw is exactly the movie that Malick set out to make. I just wish it had some entertainment value. Hell, any entertainment value.
Malick does everything he can to practically make you walk out of the theater. I was determined not to let that happen, though several others in my screening lacked that willpower. The Tree of Life is the kind of movie that plays more like a work of art that you see playing in the background at a museum exhibit. I couldn't even begin to describe the plot, but it has something to do with the death of a child, and the older brother's (played as an adult by Sean Penn) coming to terms with that. Brad Pitt appears in the 1960s scenes as the emotionally tough father.
The movie is clearly modeled after Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are moments in Tree of Life that achieve the operatic, obtuse grandeur of that masterpiece. But Tree of Life falls well short in other areas, mostly due to its wisp of a story and unintelligible structure. You could rearrange the scenes in Tree of Life in any other order than the one they're in now, and the movie would still make just as much sense.
A better comparison than 2001 would be Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and Gasper Noe's Enter the Void. Both are dreamy meditations on life and death made by talented directors, but both fell short of the mark due to overly confusing and infuriating their audiences. In spurts, Tree of Life is wondrous. As a 2 hour and 18 minute movie, however, it almost qualifies as punishment.
The religious symbolism is all over the place in The Tree of Life, though it's never preachy. It's more of the Planet Earth variety - beautifully photographed scenes of nature (volcanos, jellyfish, dinosaurs) and the cycle of life. Incredibly, and without any discernible reason, about 30 minutes in, Malick switches to these nature shots and continues to do so for the next 40 minutes, dropping the focus on Pitt and his other actors. I suspect that will be a make or break moment for many of you. The dinosaurs are pretty fascinating though.
I've read reviews of The Tree of Life that seem to excuse its meandering pace, as being rewarding for the patient moviegoer. If you ask me, you'd have to be a saint to have the kind of patience that's required here. Is Tree of Life better than nearly all of the other studio dreck that gets released each year? Definitely. But that doesn't make it a good movie. It's a curio piece at best. And in many ways, it's just as frustrating as, say, Yogi Bear. By the way, this may be the only review you read that compares The Tree of Life to Yogi Bear.
If you like experimental movies that attempt something different, The Tree of Life is probably for you. I certainly don't like the movie, but I respect Malick's vision and I think there's a place for movies like this in the marketplace.