Roger Ebert wrote that The Tree of Life “evokes the wonderment of life’s experience. It created within me a spiritual awareness, making me more alert to the awe of existence.”
Ok, that’s one way of putting it. I’ll put it a different way, though. It’s a weird, dreamy piece of artwork with a thin plot wrapped around it. Oh, I left out existential. That word should go in there somewhere. In fact, if you look at that poster to the right, it’s sort of like watching the movie. There, see? Now you don’t even have to go.
The Terrence Malick-directed film is certainly one of the most talked-about films of 2011, and with good reason. Here’s the official plot:
The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.
Yeah, I didn’t get that at all. Here’s my take, in chronological order as the film played:
10 minutes: Wow, these are stunning images. This movie is like a piece of art. Skies filled with fluffy clouds! Gorgeous landscapes! Beautiful trees!
15 minutes: Uh oh. Someone’s died. It looks like a kid. There’s his sad, lonely guitar in his sad, lonely bedroom.
20 minutes: Ooh, a flashback. This family is so happy! What a nice life they have dancing around in the streets with such a caring mom and dad.
30 minutes: More beautiful images. Skies and trees! Shifting sands! People swimming! Oh, we’re going out into space now. Whoa! There’s a meteor landing on the earth!
40 minutes: Uh oh. There’s something dark going on here. The dad is not such a happy dad. He’s kind of mean.
50 minutes: Oh crap. He’s downright abusive. Brad Pitt, I don’t like you anymore. Why must you be so stern with your adorable kids? Don’t hit your wife!
60 minutes: Ok, seriously, the images are nice, but I’m tired of them. Wait, what? How’d a dinosaur get in there? What’s going on here?!
70 minutes: Sean Penn is in a high-rise building talking on a phone.
80 minutes: Did I somehow get abducted by aliens and dropped into a different theater playing 2001: A Space Odyssey?
At about this time in the film, one of my companions got up and left. My other companion stuck it out, but said as we left the theater, “Well, there’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.”
Look, there’s no doubt that The Tree of Life is bizarre and avant-garde, and I still don’t really know what to make of it. But it’s definitely different, in an experimental indie kind of way.
And I’m still not sure what the tree in the title was all about. There were some nice fleeting images of trees in the cosmic ballet sections of the film, but maybe he’s talking about a family tree. How life goes on, even when someone dies. Or something.
But hey, even Sean Penn isn’t sure what the movie was about, and he starred in it. Well, if you call having about five minutes of screen time “starring” in it. In a recent interview with Le Figaro (don’t bother clicking over unless you know French – which is somehow appropriate for this review), he said this:
“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”
Ok, then. I totally agree. If the movie had more of a plot, it would have appealed to more people. But maybe appeal isn’t what Terrence Malick was going for. Maybe he’s ok with 50% of the viewers saying it’s the most fantastic movie they’ve ever seen, and 50% trying to get their money back as they leave the theater.
The Tree of Life is rated PG-13 “for some thematic material,” but it should have a special rating all its own. Something like PG-R-15-DW for “sort of PG, sort of R, probably not good for kids under 16, and Downright Weird.”
Have you seen The Tree of Life? What’s your take on it?
Other Reviews of The Tree of Life:
Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel: “Glibly put, this challenging time-skipping rumination is the big screen equivalent of watching that ‘Tree’ grow.”
Rick Groen, Globe and Mail: “The result actually plays like a divine pronouncement, cosmic in scope and oracular in tone, a cinematic sermon on the mount that shows its creator in exquisite form. Exquisite but frustrating.”
Tom Long, Detroit News: “The vision is dazzling. The portrayal of family life palpable. The ending … well, let’s go back to the vision.”
Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: “[It] not only aspires to change your life – it tries to explain it, from the first cosmic blip to those busy amoebae splitting and multiplying, to jellyfish jellying through the primal seas, to the planets lined up in a row.”
Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic: “Beautiful, baffling, poetic, pretentious, it’s one big ball of moviedom.”
James Berardinelli, ReelViews: “Striving for no less than the pinnacle of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life falls short of masterful but retains a power that far too many motion pictures lack.”
Wesley Morris, Boston Globe: “This movie weighs so much, yet contains so little. It’s all vault and little coin.”
J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “These audacious sequences can’t help but evoke the metaphysical questing of 2001, and in fact The Tree of Life often feels like a religious response to Stanley Kubrick’s cold, cerebral view of our place in the universe. Not to be missed.”
Bob Mondello, NPR: “The Tree of Life is astonishing in some spots, almost incoherent in others and if it doesn’t frustrate you at least some of the time … you’re not paying attention.”
Dana Stevens, Slate: “Here’s a testament to this reclusive, stubborn, visionary director’s stunning achievement: His films can change the way you look at the world by showing you how another person sees it.”
Christy Lemire, Associated Press: “If you’re open to letting the imagery wash over you, to allowing yourself to get sucked into the film’s rhythms and fluidly undulating tones, you’ll be wowed.”
Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com: “It’s a noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy, alive with passion for art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come.”