You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make sh*t. Unbelievable, unremarkable sh*t. Now I'm not some grungy wannabe filmmaker that's searching for existentialism through a haze of bong smoke or something.
Director: Terrence Malick
It happened. I caved. I had to watch the film that won the coveted Palme d'Or and decide for myself if it deserved the accolades. My overall quote that I chose, the beginning monologue from Swordfish, said by John Travolta's character, was really the initial words that came to mind for me when I saw the trailer for Terrence Malick's latest. I mean, the movie literally asks existential questions throughout, and the kids run through smoke...Now, if you recall, I did an incredible amount of bashing towards Malick, his film style, and all but wrote this film off before it even released. I'm not here to eat my own words, but I believe you'll find me to be a little more fair after you finish reading this.
Since it has been a minute or two since I've turned one of my movie reviews into a personal affair, this film will do, being a meditation on life itself. While Tree of Life does indeed suffer from a never ending amount of pretentious meandering with its narrative, I found myself hard pressed to being able to just turn my nose up at it as if it were pure nonsense. The character of Jack O'Brien (played by Sean Penn as an adult in a very small role, and Hunter McCracken (who should have gotten higher billing than the mighty Penn, honestly) as a child) is essentially an introverted version of myself. My childhood was very reminiscent of Jack's, with the amount of time I spent outdoors daydreaming of the future, causing trouble with my brother and friends. My father was match for match exactly like Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien (in an intensely compartmentalized performance), in that I knew he loved me fiercely, but he was of the old, hard breed; not very forgiving and quick to anger. I remember vividly the day my father called my brother and myself into the computer room, and began to pull up the history folder for the internet on the old Mac, and I instantly knew where that was heading. I was 11 at the time, my brother 13 or 14, and though I'm sure my brother had seen pornography before that, being older than me, I knew some of the sites pulled up were from my curiosity. We began to argue that we didn't know what we were looking at (a bullsh*t argument, he knew it, we knew it), and instead of reacting in the 'cool dad' way or something and giving the birds and bees talk, my brother and I were both beaten. I remember laying on the ground, the wind knocked out of me and bleeding, and listening to my brother scream down the hall. There is a moment of familial violence at the dinner table in Tree that comes on so jarringly that it made me think of that memory for some reason... There were a number of other occasions similar to that moment in my childhood afterwards. To this day I've had minimal contact with my father for about the past decade.
The way that Jessica Chastain's Mrs. O'Brien is portrayed (who is also excellent, maybe even better than Pitt here), in that angelic, pure sense, was 100% the way I viewed my mother. The perfect woman, who could do no wrong by me, the opposite of my father. Like the boys in the film having their unfettered moments with mom when dad was away on a business trip, I had similar moments with my mother after my parents divorced. And thankfully, the image of her has never been tarnished for me, and I'm grateful for that, because I know plenty of friends and acquaintances who don't even have a relationship or even know their parents as adults. The fact that Malick captures these childhood emotions so effectively on screen brought me to a level of profundity that has taken some time to digest. I couldn't sit down immediately and just begin typing words, as it wasn't a normal viewing experience for me upon reflection. So while my quote above is a classic display of my old snarky self you're all familiar with, it felt like a distant thought afterwards. So given that my life has mirrored the film in a number of ways, I found myself able to get past the pretentious bits (see: entire film) probably with more ease than the average individual would that isn't into Terrence Malick's style of film making (I'm still not, this particular film just happened to be extremely relate-able for me).
Tree of Life continues to showcase Malick's distinct eye for thought provoking imagery, between seeing the universe born and expand in dazzling colors and shapes, to up close shots of new born babies, and capturing how tiny and fragile we are when we first come into this world, and the sense of wonder we have about this initially alien existence. A single frame might speak a thousand different things to a thousand people watching Tree, so in that sense Malick has indeed captured art in motion. Even I'll admit, in this modern movie world we live in, where most of us are impatient to get to the next scene, the pay off, I walked away impressed when I thought about this film from that angle. You don't find that introspective experience often anymore, as most film makers don't have the patience to deliver a product like that, or are afraid other people won't (get it/have patience) when they see it.
I also found myself attracted to the attempted marriage of science and faith theme that is prevalent. I'm a firm believer that science can prove God and the realm beyond this life, and it was fascinating for me to watch the creation of the cosmos and the universe age in juxtaposition with Chastain's strong faith that she possesses and instills in the boys (as witnessed by heard whispered prayers and unanswerable questions in voice over). I'm sure this aspect of Tree of Life will be absorbed vastly differently with different people, but again, like the entirety of the film, I believe that is sort of the point. Interpretation and ambiguity is monstrously rampant here.
Curiously, the sonorous score by celebrated French film composer Alexandre Desplat was the weakest part of the film for me. It's slow and steady, building as the film progresses, spiking where necessary (or cutting off very briefly), but the almost nonstop droning of it from minute one to end credits ended up annoying me and diminishing some scenes that I imagine should have come off more poignantly. I had the same reaction/problem with The New World, so I'll chalk that up to just another reason why I'm not as into Malick movies as some.
Having seen Melancholia and Tree of Life within a short span of time of each other, it would probably be quite the cerebral and emotional gauntlet to run through to see both films back to back. Both are very much layered experiences with some similar themes, but taking STARKLY different approaches to the same ideas. Where one seemingly punishes you for the simple fact you exist, the other encourages you to celebrate this. Something tells me Terrence and Lars would not find very much middle ground considering these pair of films and how obviously personal they are to the both of them.
In summation, while likely not going to be the film of the year for me due the weaknesses explained, I did walk away from The Tree of Life much more satisfied than I thought possible. Given my Pisces nature, if I hadn't watched it with so much pent up preconceived notions of wanting to hate it, I might have even loved it since it pandered to exactly my type of person. It's possible it could grow on me over time, and I find myself in a different place with it. Perhaps if/when I make my peace with my own father....
Final Grade: B-