The Tree of Life (2011)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Fox-Searchlight, PG-13, 139 mins.
Let me begin with an admission: I’ve never liked Terrence Malick films. If The New World (2005) had been made thirty years earlier, it would have dissuaded me from majoring in history. The Tree of Life is analogous to the film that brought Malick to public attention, Days of Heaven (1978): gorgeous to view, but in the service of very little. The thinness of the script for Days of Heaven was forgivable because the story being told was small. Not so in The Tree of Life, where Malick wants us to ponder the origins of the universe and the nature of humanity. He’s trying to make an earthbound 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he ends up with something that’s revelatory in the way that an introductory philosophy class is enlightening to a college kid who has never before pondered anything bigger than himself.
To the degree that there is a story arc, the action is set in a post-World War II Waco, Texas suburb in which Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons are not living the American Dream. Pitt spouts the official line about opportunity, but he’s a failed inventor stuck in a factory job. He simultaneously covets wealth, but is deeply resentful of how obtaining it is linked to privilege. Chastain reveals the film’s thesis in a voice-over: there are two paths in life, the way of nature and the way of grace. Pitt is nature, an emotionally buttoned-down and frustrated loser in the struggle for existence who wishes to be tender but becomes a militaristic tyrant when he’s angry. Chastain is the way of grace–nurturing, kind and free-spirited, but also a passive bird easily knocked out of the air by her husband’s volcanic outbursts and the slings and arrows of life’s misfortunes.
Or maybe I should say that she’s a small dinosaur furtively grazing in primal fern forests, ever mindful of predators. I say this because Malick tries to make the O’Brien’s struggle analogous to the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on earth. Along the banks of the same river that runs near the O’Brien’s home we are transported millions of years back in time and see a small dinosaur soothing a wound. As the injured reptile lies in the shallow water it’s pined in place by a larger carnivore that ultimately releases it. (Gaffe alert: Shouldn’t that river have changed a bit more over several million years?)
Oh, I get it! The wounded dino is Mrs. O’Brien and her husband is the predator. Duh! If you find that contrived–and you should–consider also that the children see their parents as animus (the male Hero archetype) and anima (a Virgin Mary joy and goodness archetype). Each must choose his own path. You can forget the youngest child–who is there mainly because 50s’ families were supposed to have three kids–as the real drama is between the middle son who is like his mother, and the eldest, Jack, who is filled with self loathing because he’s a chip off the paternal block. Malick isn’t content merely to take us to the dawn of time, we must also go forward in our cinematic time machine, where we encounter Jack (Sean Penn) as a highly regarded architect whose personal life is in shambles. One must infer all of this, as Penn doesn’t say much; his is mostly a cameo role in which he walks about canyons of steel and glass looking morose. He’s allegedly musing upon the meaning of life because he’s gotten word that his middle brother, whom he abused as a child as surely as his father abused his mother, has died.
Sound pretentious? Wait; there’s more. Not content to offer primers on Social Darwinism and Jungian psychology, Malick gives us an ending that’s Hinduism for Beginners. Jack takes an elevator to the bottom floor (death?), exists into a rocky landscape, walks through a wooden door arch in the middle of nowhere, and encounters his birth family wading in shallow waters. Everyone is happy.
That is, everyone except those who sat through 139 minutes of such utter nonsense! Sorry if I gave away the ending, but it’s for your own good. Now you won’t be tempted to waste an entire evening. Why two stars? Score one for Chastain, who is transcendent in her underwritten role. A begrudging second for the painterly visuals.
The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, despite the fact that half the audience booed it. Why did it win? Maybe it even seemed “deep” to the shallow glitterati that turn up at places such as Cannes. I’ll be charitable and say that the film’s surfaces make one appreciate Malick as a visual artist. Too bad he doesn’t hire scriptwriters. A film about the origin of life shouldn’t feel as if you just watched it in real time.