Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick Reviews The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line and The New World) is one of the most celebrated, and reclusive, filmmakers working in the industry today. As Hollywood churns out superhero adaptation after superhero adaptation, even corralling directors such as Kenneth Branagh to helm the projects, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see a director who is both willing to take chances with a completely original script as well as disappear for years in order to allow his projects plenty of time to gestate. After forty years in the business, and only five feature films to his name, it’s safe to say Malick is an enigma.
Enigmatic also serves as a good way of describing Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life – starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and (on occasion) Sean Penn. For anyone who’s seen the film’s trailer, it should come as no surprise that The Tree of Life is an especially ambitious project. However, setting aside the beautiful cinematography and emotional performances, does the overarching film showcase skillful direction and provide a meaningful experience for moviegoers?
The answer? Yes and no.
The Tree of Life is certainly a grand and beautiful piece of motion picture art, but as 138 minute-long feature film, the project can at times slide off the rails - and convolute the more subtle and competent aspects of the experience. Certainly some viewers are going to claim that anyone who doesn’t give The Tree of Life a perfect score just doesn’t understand the deep connections that Malick presented onscreen. Similarly, there will also be moviegoers who claim the film is just a jumble of beautiful imagery and, as a result, isn’t actually a feature film. That said, these extremes rob viewers of a far more intriguing discourse that exists somewhere in the middle – where, in spite of the film’s shortcomings, audiences are still offered a compelling juxtaposition of grace and nature (as the director would put it). Creating that middle-ground, where execution falls short of ambition, may actually be the greatest success of Malick’s film – a space where engaged viewers can enjoy a spirited discourse.
For anyone unfamiliar with the film, The Tree of Life is an abstract meditation on the meaning of life - centering on a middle class family in the 1950s. The film also presents a number of literal and surreal set pieces to help illustrate Malick’s ideas: a fifteen-minute creation scene (with dinosaurs) and flashes to the family’s oldest son in 2011 - among other symbolic imagery. Despite what some detractors might say, The Tree of Life isn’t just a series of beautiful and semi-random sequences - there is a central, and mostly linear, narrative couched inside the film’s abstractions.
The project contains very little dialogue but emotions and relationships are successfully conveyed through simple looks and inspired camera work. While we never fully get a chance to uncover what “happens” later on to many of the characters, given the subtlety of Malick’s touch in the film, it’s especially easy to identify what each family member is going through, moment to moment.
The focus on the present is a major strength of The Tree of Life – and as a result, it will be the various moments (not the “plot”) that will leave lasting impressions. Obviously, certain dramatic scenes will resonate with our own human experiences, but Malick also succeeds with the abstract sequences - which are equally evocative, and, despite lacking “characters,” still resonate with our human nature. Still, given the scope of the project – which, as mentioned, attempts to make sense of creation as well as the meaning of a single life – some moments are not as successful as others. Even though he was aiming high, for some moviegoers, even audience members who are genuinely interested in Malick’s artistry, the film may be too long and too jumbled to truly enjoy.
The Tree of Life is art, but that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from criticism. In one moment of subtlety - the father leading his son by the back of the neck with a firm but tender grip - the film can convey and encapsulate visceral and raw humanity. However, Malick doesn’t always show the same restraint when structuring certain elements of the project around literal metaphors: such as the father (nature) and the mother (grace). These on-the-nose moments (and there are plenty of them) are at odds with the delicacy of the film's core.
There’s always the argument (as with any piece of art) that Malick intended the project to be at odds - as a further example of the grace vs. nature role in creation (i.e., filmmaking). However, as a film – a medium that is presented to us over the course of hours (as opposed to something we can easily examine in whole) - The Tree of Life falls short of successfully connecting all of its various layers.
Some moments, as interesting as they might be individually, mired the film's momentum. There’s very little build-up to the final moments, which fail to strike a climax and wind down without a real emotional peak. Of course, Malick could have intended for the closing moments to mirror real life, which is usually punctuated with unceremonious and unsettled resolution.
The Tree of Life is an important film – but exhausting in its execution. Whether intentional or not, the project is constantly at war with itself, as a result of the grace vs. nature argument presented in the film’s opening moments. While the idea and onscreen implementations make for a compelling and challenging look at the larger questions of human existence, Malick may have pushed the envelope a bit too far, losing the ability to see the forest for the trees – even in a film as beautiful and surreal as this.
Either that, or Malick is a genius and most of us are just too thick-skulled to understand everything The Tree of Life has to offer.
If you’re still on the fence about The Tree of Life, check out the trailer below – which gives a good indication of the film’s tone - though the trailer hints at a much more straightforward narrative experience than the one presented in the actual movie:
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick — and let us know what you thought of the film below.
The Tree of Life is currently playing in a limited number of theaters and opens in wide release on July 8th.