I’m going to do my best not to spoil any part of this movie for you but I feel that more people should be prepared for what happens in Tree of Life. Because I wasn’t prepared, and I spent far too much of this movie sputtering in confusion when I probably should have been sighing melodramatically, or continuously weeping like the lady in the row front of us.
So. First of all you get some kind of very beautiful wafting thing, which I thought might be a womb, but was probably God, or something. Whatever it is, it puts you in the state you should adhere to for the rest of the film, i.e. meaningful silence and awkwardness when it comes to crunching on food/sucking on your Coke straw. Then you get a sad scene where a mother (the very beautiful Jessica Chastain) finds out some bad news and tells her spouse (a terrifying bespectacled and Brylcreemed Brad Pitt), and then suddenly you are in the middle of a thirty-minute documentary about the Big Bang and Earth’s most amazing visual moments. I mean, I started laughing a bit because it came out of left field, but without the element of surprise, it really is just worth sitting back and appreciating the hands-down beautiful scenes in front of you, occasionally accompanied by some overly emotive opera. Then, eventually, just as you get to the part in Earth’s formation where the dinosaurs are wiped out (yes, you will see dinosaurs, may as well brace yourself for that too), you are catapulted back into the present, where a man named Jack (Sean Penn, basically pointless) sulks around the place thinking about a family tragedy and is accompanied by a slew of visually dramatic moments that are like being hit in the face with a poignancy bat (like a cricket bat, but harder). Finally, you are taken back through Jack’s memories and hang out with him in the 50s (though with Sean Penn only 40something himself it really should have been set in the 70s to make any chronological sense) as adolescent Jack deals with the loss of childhood innocence with his family, including his folks, the aforementioned Chastain/Pitt pairing. Then you end on what is either the crew wrap party or some emotional and spiritual finale. It was boring, anyway.
The trouble is, Tree of Life isn’t an altogether terrible movie. It’s just that it’s too many types of movies. I will say in all honesty it’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time: the cinematography is magical, the scenes all heavy with pathos, and atmosphere—both in emotion and temperature—is almost perfectly conveyed. The problem is that director Terrence Malick is so proud of his undeniable talent that I imagine he must have wandered around the set in a suit made of solid gold yelling, “More! MORE METAPHORS! THE AUDIENCE IS NOT SAD ENOUGH!” because god damn if I wasn’t just sick of being emotionally manipulated by the end of it. The camera lingers on pools of water. It lingers on dinosaurs showing empathy. It lingers on everyone’s faces and clothes and grass. This is why the movie goes for two and a half hours. It malingers.
Not to mention the movie takes forever to even become a movie: the first half-hour or so is spent in jerking, poignant moments in time, edited like a trailer and never quite focussing on anyone in particular: just their shadow, or the backs of their heads, or an inch of their skin. It’s an interesting cinematic technique, no doubt, but it goes on longer than such an approach should and becomes tedious.
What is even more frustrating—and probably doesn’t come through at all in this sulky review—is that it could have been edited and adjusted into a four-star movie. The scenes in Jack’s memory as he interacts with his family are wonderful. Anyone who has had a parent, spouse, sibling or child would be able to relate to some of the moments, cliché though they are: running under a sprinkler, chasing your mother around the house with a lizard, doing shadow puppets with your hands using a torch and a sheet. Even if those moments were never yours, they still shimmer with childhood beauty and ruin, and feel universal.
In case Tree of Life is not layered enough already, it’s also lesson in Freudian psychology. The boys’ mother, Mrs O’Brien, is a perfect angel, there for her children in touch and care, but subservient to her husband. Mr O’Brien is an aggressor who teaches the boys that fighting is A-OK but smiling at the dinner table is certainly not. He is rough with them every time he touches them, while she is gentle. There’s even a disturbing Oedipal moment or two and a part where Jack yells at his father “You want to kill me!” To be honest, the family moments are not particularly original—you’ll have seen kids shoot cap guns and a loved-up couple smile at each other on a picnic blanket in about ten thousand other movies—but despite that, I really enjoyed the scenes, even though there is a certain amount of tension lost in the fact you know in advance how their story ends.
Really, there is a lot to ridicule in Tree of Life. Sean Penn, as the grown Jack, is completely redundant—if someone can tell me the point of him then I’d love to hear it. The religious aspect is tiring by the end. But there’s a lot to love, too: the 50s are rendered perfectly and Jessica Chastain’s wardrobe would cause me to roll her if I ran into her down at Ringwood Station. It is measured and understated at times. And then at others it’s so exhaustingly overbearing I just wanted to groan, if I was game to make a sound.
I don’t know if this review makes any sense. It’s hard when the movie itself is so confused about what it’s trying to say. I’ll probably read this tomorrow and wish I had just shut up, or done something Twitter-length like: “#treeoflife is a slice of life of human existence that is devoid entirely of humour, an almost impressive feat. Buy the dvd and FF through the crap bits to make a great short film.” But oh well. I’m not known for my ability to shut up.