Film Review: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011)

Poster for Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" (2011)

Summary: A breathtaking cinematic vision, but deeply flawed.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

I would like to preface this by saying that I am a huge fan of Terrence Malick, particularly of his first two films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).  I also greatly enjoyed The Thin Red Line (1999), though I do not hold it in as high regard as the first two.

And so naturally I entered into the theater earlier today expecting greatness.  Upon leaving it, however, I could not help but feel a little disappointed.  Perhaps I had raised my expectations too high, but as a whole the movie left me underwhelmed.  While the film featured stunning sequences, of undeniable cinematic sublimity, there was a distinct sense in which the movie began to drag (unbearably, in parts).  I could find no fault in the acting; Brad Pitt’s performance as the father was solid, and the character he portrayed was actually very compelling in his complexities.  Even most impressive was the performance turned in by Hunter McCracken, who plays the younger self of Jack O’Brien.  Compared to Sean Penn, who played his older incarnation, McCracken was probably featured in double the length in scenes.  As a lover of Johannes Brahms, and his immortal German Requiem, I can’t say I was let down by the soundtrack, either.  In fact, I found the role of music in the film to be one of its strongest elements, both as background and insofar as it was integrated into the plot, through Mr. O’Brien’s obsession with the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973)

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life (2011)

The best way to articulate my reasons for disliking elements of The Tree of Life would be to trace it through some of the similarities I see the as having both with films made by different directors, and those made prior by Malick himself.  Several key similarities stand out immediately.  First, there is Malick’s tendency to depict small-town narratives from 1950s America (or a few decades prior).  Badlands is the most obvious parallel, though Days of Heaven might also qualify, taking place in the 1920s panhandle.  His films also seem to share the presence of strikingly pale or freckled redheads as the main actresses, with Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life.

Scene from Badlands (1973)

Scene from The Tree of Life (2011)

In each case they are paired with a rather hunky Hollywood star playing characters with distinct Southern accents.  To be fair, though, Brad Pitt is already a very well-established actor, whereas Martin Sheen in Badlands was still a relative unknown.  Pitt’s a celebrity who I tend to mind less than most others.  He acts his part well in The Tree of Life.  Sheen’s performance in Badlands is of a different caliber, however — indeed, one of the most memorable of all time.

Kit and Holly from Malick's Badlands (1973)

Jack O'Brien from Malick's Tree of Life (2011)

Another commonality between Malick’s films, which may seem strange to point out, is his repeated emphasis of featuring his characters taking long, sauntering walks along wide and mostly empty streets.  This fact is even harder to illustrate.  The present dearth of film stills for The Tree of Life, still in theaters, prevents me from finding some of the more blatant examples of these scenes.  Of course, this might strike one as a trivial point, but anyone who has seen both Badlands and The Tree of Life will surely notice the prevalence of such scenes in both films and their importance, perhaps, as a motif.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

 Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011)

Still from Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

Still from Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

Still from Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

Still from Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

Still from Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

Scene from Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

Still from Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

 

Scene from Andrei Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979), reminiscent of some of the sequences in Malick’s film

Not having read any of the previews surrounding the film, I was especially unprepared for the film’s sudden and baffling cosmological interlude, in which the origin of the universe, the proliferation of stars, planets, tides, and organisms is borne out in a series of stunning and unforgettable images.  I was, of course, familiar with such sequences, being a huge fan of Kubrick’s 2001.  So I naturally felt extremely vindicated upon checking the reviews later to see that Roger Ebert as well as a host of others had made a similar observation.  Still, though Kubrick’s groundbreaking ending of 2001, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” must be seen in some respects as incredibly self-indulgent and cosmo-maniacal (however brilliant it is), Malick’s meandering foray into the evolution of the cosmos is still then a bit trying by comparison.  This 15-25 minute sequence — I have no idea how much actual time elapsed — struck me as incredibly over-the-top, especially with its dinosaur scenes, which I’ve since learned have been much-maligned.  I couldn’t but feel that this portion of the movie dragged along, just as it did later with the overlong portrayal of the three boys’ trials of boyhood/adolescence.  And while I know the movie only ran about two-and-a-half hours, and though I am an unabashed enthusiast of such epic films as Tarkovskii’s Solaris and Kubrick’s 2001 (both of which feature long sequences without any dialog whatsoever), I felt that The Tree of Life was hopelessly ponderous.  Some of its “deeper” moments were filled with an all-too-knowing profundity, of which I couldn’t help but be suspicious the whole time.

One of the parts of the film I most enjoyed, the transition from Jack’s birth and early childhood all the way up to his adolescence, where the temporality of the film once again becomes somewhat stable, was pulled off gracefully and economically by comparison.  The pattern of disjointed memories from childhood, coupled with the voiceovers, reminded me greatly of Tarkovskii’s masterpiece Зеркало (Mirror), as well as parts of his later sci-fi epic Stalker.  All three set forth phantasmagorical reminiscences, in an episodic and alogical fashion, by almost a free play of associations.  Accompanying all three are whispered voiceovers from some of the film’s main characters.  Though Malick certainly used this device before in his films, in both Badlands and Days of Heaven, his use in this film actually reminded me more of Tarkovskii’s films.  Malick’s use of this technique is very effective, even if it does not quite equal Tarkovskii’s.

I would like to add, before closing, that besides the other mindblowing visuals shown in the film, I thought Malick’s camerawork in depicting architecture in the Sean Penn parts of the movie was exceptional.  It takes incredible art and skill to show through the camera’s eye the rhythm and dynamism of modern architecture’s curves, angles, and vortices.  Those were some of the parts I most enjoyed.  As a lover of architecture, I was blown away.