When I put the call out for people to recommend films for me to review this year, I did so expecting to have differing opinions with some of the people who suggested the films. I know there’s a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily think the same way I do, which is what makes the world an endlessly wonderful/frustrating place to live in. Mette suggested two films for me, and they both came with warnings. The other suggestion (2000’s In the Mood For Love) arrived in disc form today, so I’ll be covering that soon, and apparently I’ll suffer through it, whereas The Tree of Life came with the claim that I’d either love it or hate it, but that I shouldn’t dare hate it. Sorry Mette, I’m feeling rather daring today.
The first warning sign with The Tree of Life is that it’s directed by Terrence Malick. There’s a reason I’ve only seen two of his films so far. Whilst The Thin Red Line has some great aspects to it, its heavy leaning on the philosophy of warfare isn’t something that I long to return to frequently, and Badlands is a film I’ve seen multiple times but can never remember. Days of Heaven is in my future, and I’m not exactly looking forward to that (adding Richard Gere to a film is not a way to make me like it), and The New World and To The Wonder don’t interest me in the slightest. The problem I have is a lack of a driven narrative. I know that’s not what Malick is aiming for, and he strikes me as a director who achieves exactly what he sets out to do when making a film, it’s just that was he aims for is not something I want to watch. It’s often something I enjoy looking at hung on a wall, because no-one could argue his films aren’t the prettiest things around, I just long for some structure to hang these paintings on. And thus, I didn’t enjoy The Tree of Life, despite it looking like a collection of Microsoft desktop wallpapers.
Plot-wise, it sees Jack (Sean Penn) pondering on his childhood, being raised as a boy by his contrasting parents; his authoritative and strict father (Brad Pitt) and caring, angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). One of Jack’s two brothers die at the age of 19. And some time before that, the universe was created, life spawned on Earth, dinosaurs occurred and, you know, the history of the world and all that. What’s that? Dinosaurs? Yeah, I’d heard there were some here too, I’d just expected to see them for more than a couple of minutes, so when an asteroid was seen hurtling towards Earth mere moments after their appearance in the film, to say I was disappointed would be something of an understatement. What we get instead is lots of glimpses into the banal moments of Jack’s upbringing, as a toddler playing with bubbles, helping his dad plant a tree, the differing methods his parents used to wake him up. There could have been some conflict with regards to how Jack could have been torn between which of his parents’ footsteps he would follow in, but he so clearly favours his mother’s beliefs, especially after his father has an angry outburst or two.
I found it incredibly difficult to stay attentive throughout the almost two and a half hour run-time. It always felt like a film where so few events of any interest or value would take place that any attention paid to it would be in the end a waste of time, yet try I did. The score didn’t help, complete as it is with background and environmental noise that I always try to remove when editing the Lambcast every week. There’s even a disclaimer at the start of the film which suggested that it is best experienced if played very loudly. I found this very frustrating from the beginning, as I have neighbours I don’t wish to aggravate, so I watched it on a reasonable volume, just as any film should be able to be enjoyed on. And given how loudly some of the music – for example the Brahms that Brad Pitt’s character listens to – is played anyway, I’m glad I didn’t opt for excessive volume. And I fail to see how increasing the overall volume would have amended how much the score drowned out any of the dialogue anyway.
I’ve heard that Sean Penn’s role was significantly cut down from how much he filmed, as is the case with most of Malick’s work – the fact that this happens a lot makes me doubt how great of a director he really is, considering he shoots so much footage he eventually doesn’t need. I feel a better director would have a clearer vision of the finished product before they began, but what do I know? Penn’s reduced role makes sense in that he’s barely in the film, and when he is it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. There’s a prolonged scene on a beach that just seemed odd, and would have felt out of place were it not for how randomly selected and edited the rest of the film was too. I found myself wishing he and all the people he came across would just walk into the ocean together so, as I wrote in my notes, “this bullshit can end.”
Imagine a jigsaw puzzle, where most of the individual pieces are stunning images in their own right, but when assembled together the result resembles a big grey blob and you’ll have some idea of how I feel about The Tree of Life. Some of the scenes were terrific – the dinner scene between the parents and kids for example – but when put together it was unsatisfying and bloated. Other than something beautiful to look at (and not just Jessica Chastain, who Malick never paints as anything other than a golden-hued angel, in that at one point she literally flies) I don’t understand why anyone could like this film. Mette, please feel free to explain it to me.
Choose Life 5/10