‘The Tree of Life’: Leave it alone

May 24, 2011

If you watch Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (and I’m not recommending you do), you’ll gain a whole new understanding of the phrase “art film.”

Malick isn’t a visual story-teller; he’s a visual artist whose medium happens to be film. With each successive film, he moves farther and farther away from the conventional understanding of terms like plot, character and action.

Indeed, you can count on two hands the number of scenes in “The Tree of Life” (which just won the Cannes Film Festival) that involve characters actually speaking in view of the camera. You frequently hear their voices – but it’s rare that Malick’s camera actually shows anyone talking.

Story? Well, if I had to summarize it, I’d say that Malick’s film is about a father (played by Brad Pitt) who lives to regret the harsh way he treats his preadolescent sons. Eventually one of those sons grows up to be Sean Penn, who learns to forgive his father (in his 10 or so minutes of screen time).

And that, I believe, is what the takeaway would be for the average person who saw this film unprepared – that and the fact that Malick takes almost 140 minutes to tell a story that could be the length of a TV movie (or less). After seeing the film, however, I read the press notes, which state:

“(Jack’s) human struggles become part of the cosmos’ vast creative and destructive powers, as he begins to sense his connections to the dust of the stars, to the prehistoric creatures who once roamed the earth and to his ultimate destiny.”

Really? See, I got none of that. What I did see was an early sequence in which parents (played by Pitt and Jessica Chastain, Hollywood’s new It girl) get the news that one of their sons is dead. That obviously takes place in the past, probably the late 1960s – and then we cut to the present, where an unhappy looking Penn scowls around a modern-looking workplace and mumbles into a phone about disagreements with his father and the fact that his brother was killed when he was 19. And then … what?

Well, there’s a 15-minute wordless interlude in which Malick apparently takes us back to the Big Bang and brings us through the formation of Earth, the evolution of life from single cells to dinosaurs to the Ice Age – and then plops us back in the West Texas backyard of Pitt and Chastain in the 1950s, as their three children are born and grow to pre-adolescence.

Seriously – there’s a solid 15 minutes without dialogue (except voice-over dithering in which someone – Penn? – mutters whispered questions like “Who are we to you?” and “Did you know?”). It’s a ballsy move – and one that’s almost guaranteed to clear theaters. After all, this segment – bound to perplex even sentient movie-goers – comes a half-hour into the film, 30 minutes that have been vague (at a minimum), cryptic and mysterious to the point of impermeability.

Or perhaps it’s all more simple than that – it’s the circle of life, as Disney would have it, or the tree of life, as Malick would. We create the world all over with each new life we introduce into it. Yeah, you could probably say that a little more succinctly and without alienating your audience.

Look, I get it. Malick makes the movies he wants to make in the way he wants to make them. He communicates visually and through indirection (as opposed to misdirection). In doing so, he summons surprising emotion, given how ephemeral his actual story-telling is. He elicits a strong performance out of Pitt as a father who is determined not to pass his own shortcomings (or what he perceives as shortcomings) on to his children – even if it means disciplining them until they bridle against and defy him.

And he also gets something spookily real out of Hunter McCracken, who plays Penn as a boy and dominates the film. He conveys the kid’s sensitivity and rebelliousness. He also gets that “what the hell – why not?” sense of destructive curiosity that leads a kid to tape a toad to a skyrocket, or talk his younger brother into putting his finger over the end of a BB gun and then pull the trigger.

Malick’s writing leans toward the heavy-handed: “There is a way of nature and a way of grace,” Chastain intones in voice-over at the very beginning. Her character is identified in the press notes only as “Mrs. O’Brien,” but if she had a first name, it probably would be Grace – which would make Pitt’s character’s name Nat, I suppose.

Certainly the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is gorgeous, capturing Malick’s signature love of nature and sense of awe at its force and guilelessness. The film flows from image to image, not necessarily telling a story but still evoking feelings in the viewer, not all of which are impatience.

But impatience does accrue – not so much a feeling of “What’s the point?” as “Get to the point.” And the obvious point in “The Tree of Life” seems exactly that. Malick may not believe in creationism, but he does believe in a higher power. It’s surprising how corny that power seems once he gets around to acknowledging it, in a final scene apparently set in a heaven that exists as a beach.

Otherwise, “The Tree of Life” is a film that’s too precious and wispy, too insubstantial in its artiness, to be satisfying in virtually any way. Malick notoriously takes years, sometimes decades, between projects (20 years between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line”). I’d be happy to wait a long time before having to watch another one.

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