Tree of Life is one of the most problematic films I’ve seen in recent days. It’s also a difficult one to review: Amazing performances, a compelling story and visuals that will blow your mind, warring with abstract meanings, confusing plot lines and an ambiguous ending.
So, how many of you are mad at me now? In all the years I’ve been reporting on films, this one has to be the most divisive. Just mention the name Tree of Life to anyone who’s seen it and an argument will ensue — at least a very heated discussion. No one is wishy-washy about this film. And to be fair, there is every reason to argue both sides.
I’ll come right out and say it. Though I thought it was some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve ever seen on screen, this was not the film for me. While I get what director Terrence Malick (whose work I usually love) was doing, it felt overdone and frankly very self-indulgent — student film self-indulgent. I’ve described this to friends as watching the most attractive person you’ve ever seen in your life tell the most boring, drawn-out story you’ve ever heard. It made me want to grab Malick by the shoulders and yell, “Focus!”
On the other side of this, there is certainly no one way to make movies, and who am I to say that he shouldn’t make a film in any way he wants? There is absolutely a place for films like this, and I’m not at all against a director’s right to tell whatever story he or she wants in whatever way suits them. All I’m saying here is that I felt like someone’s grandfather had cornered me in a room. He told me a story that was probably really fascinating, but the mind-wandering, tangent-filled way in which he told it left me squirming and looking longingly at the door.
I guess this is a good time to explain what’s happening in Tree of Life. I’ll at least give it a shot. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt are the parents of three boys in Texas in the ’50s. She finds out that one son is dead. Then we go into a long, beautiful reenactment of creation, complete with shimmering lights and dinosaurs, who I believe were doing something symbolic. Then we do an entire movie about the childhood of these boys, focusing on Sean Penn (Jack) as a child (played by Hunter McCracken) and his mommy and daddy issues. I don’t mean that to sound flippant. It’s a beautiful story.
Then we end up in older Jack’s world (we’ve seen him wandering in through the desert in a business suit sporadically throughout the film) and on a beach, which may be heaven and may be a hallucination. It was lovely. It was poetic. And it was boring. Yes. Boring. Meaningful, but very, very tedious, like a stoner emoting for far too long. Lots of metaphors here, I know, but it’s really the only way to describe that sense of, ”I know I should like this more than I do.”
Am I waffling here? Yes, and that is not something I normally do in film reviews. It’s because what was wonderful was so very, very wonderful. The creation imagery was glorious. I would have watched it all on its own. Or, if we had seen Jessica Chastain find out about losing her son and then wander into the woods, only to relive creation… the end, that would have been fine. Death does bring out that sense of terror and wonder and make us feel like we’re part of something bigger. But then it goes into a beautiful film about growing up in Texas in the ’50s and family dynamics. That’s also a good film. So was the strange, trippy one with Sean Penn. But they were three separate films, meandering all over the place. The performances were brilliant across the board, and I’d be surprised if Jessica Chastain isn’t nominated for a slew of awards, but… and here it is… someone needed to edit the hell out of this thing.
So, should you see it? Yes. This is going to be one of the most talked about films for some time. You might as well take part in the arguments.
Tree of Life review
Out of five stars…