What movie was that...?

17 June 2011

Tree of LIfe

directed by Terence Malick
This review is longer than usual, and for that I apologize...

It’s hard to talk about a film when you don’t really know where to begin. It makes it even harder when the film is about everything, literally. I suppose we should start on the surface and work our way down the rabbit hole. The score by Alexandre Desplat is phenomenal, emotive and dreamlike, echoing such titanic scores as 2001 and even Days of Heaven, and when coupled with the immensely fantastic sound design, creates sweeping emotions and cold, mute emptiness. The acting was outstanding (even by Hollywood dudmuffin, Brad Pitt!), particularly by the boys, played to perfection by Hunter McCracken (phenomenal) and Laramie Eppler (as close to perfect as I have seen in some time). I have always loved Malick’s use of VO (there’s a qualifier to this assertion in this case. Read on for clarification), and he doesn’t disappoint here, cultivating a sense of quiet tension that pulls you to the edge of your seat. The cinematography is, per usual, perfectly executed, a true benchmark in film. Where my feelings on the film become as nebulous as Malick’s thesis (for lack of a better word) is in the story (again, for lack of a better word) and how it unfolds. The film starts at the beginning, the very beginning, then jumps to the present (I suppose), then jumps back to just after the beginning of all things, then winds its way back to Middle America, circa the 1950s, focusing on the O’Brien family. The film does many things, many wonderful, complicated, unsettling, magnificent things, and Malick’s lens floats through existence like a ghost, channeling the near perfect example he set forth in Days of Heaven, but what does it mean? Malick’s films are very humanistic, unlike peer and fellow auteur filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s science experiments, but Malick doesn’t concern himself with the dark sentiment of human nature like other philosopher filmmakers such as Werner Herzog or Lars Von Trier, instead lingering always upon the bigger, cosmic picture. There is darkness there, surely, but it isn’t the Hobbesian focus of Malick’s canon. Even when his films see life through a keyhole, most notably in Badlands, he seeks to link it to a larger concept. In Tree of Life, Malick asks two question that battle one another.

What is significant? Or, how do we measure significance?

And,

Why is anything significant? Or, is it the everything that’s significant?

Ok. Let’s pump the brakes right here (PS spoiler alert)-

Before I go any further, I need to clear up some major problems I had with this film and why I have been so forgiving thus far (and why, in fact, I seem to be reviewing a different film):

The last 20 or so minutes of Tree of Life are not only unnecessary, they are god awful. The whole “climax” of the film smacks of art school pretension that, frankly, I never expected of Malick. I actually let out an audible groan and cringed during one particular VO in this final chapter, it was so over the top. In an effort to reconcile these emotions, I have simply chosen to pretend the last segment of this film never happened, and I since have felt my ulcer subside significantly. By lopping off that pustule of a film sequence, I can also pretend that the weird flash to the “present” sequence that happened early in the film actually occurred where it logically belonged, near the end. From a plot device standpoint, the only reason I can see for this flash is that Malick wanted to make sure to set us up for his BS ending (a weak and amateur move, btw), which never happened in my version of reality, so the flash can therefore be placed in its proper place near the end of the film, thus creating a linear and astounding cosmic story. I see what Malick was trying to do, and I was so with him all the way, but what he failed to realize (again, I am surprised and disappointed by this) is that told as a chronologically straight forward story (from very beginning to very end, and beyond), Tree of Life is mind boggling enough. No need for jumping around the timeline, Mr. M, especially when you only do it once, and oddly at that. I was in shock as I watched this film deteriorate before my eyes, as if I was listening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and suddenly Mr. B himself began using his armpit as an instrument…

My Conclusion (finally! What a windbag you are, BC):
Tree of Life is like Mike Tyson: full of so much potential that, if fully realized, would have left any semblance of competition in the dust. Potential that was, sadly, wasted and destroyed by indulgence and poor decisions. Please, Mr. M, remove the cancer that is the final sequence and rearrange your film in proper chronological order, and you will have a film that truly soars. The symmetry of imagery, theme, metaphor and motif was magnificent. The parallels through time and space (the brothers fighting, the dinosaurs, the nebulae, a simple look) were staggering. It’s all there, Mr. M. It’s all there in the can, it just needs some trimming. Start with the light, end with the dock parallel image of our vantage point amid a lifeless ridge in a silent and infinite space, and bookend the whole piece with the light from the beginning. I can see it in my mind, and it takes my breath away.

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