Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Eternity of Boredom

There are dozens of films I've been looking forward to this year. Some of them, like X-Men First Class, Bridesmaids and Win Win have matched or even exceeded my early predictions of excellence. Others, like Sucker Punch and The Mechanic, didn't even come close. And then there are the films that have come out of nowhere to surprise and appease my defiant spirits, sporting titles like Insidious and Source Code. Director Terrence Malick's latest film (his most awaited since 1998's Thin Red Line) The Tree of Life wouldn't fall into either of the first two categories. I was neither enticed nor impressed by the film's trailer, which included a number of various images focusing not only on the birth of a universe but a random 1950's family and showcasing the names of legitimate stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The only real draw was Malick's association, which was ascertained afterwards, and only by my film-knowledgeable friends like Brian of Moving Picture Trash. In any year, a director of his caliber releasing a film should be a big deal. It would be like throwing out legendary names Scorsese and Spielberg, but with far more talent behind the camera. I still wasn't convinced that The Tree of Life would be a film worth watching, but at least I had a reason to go to the theater and give the whole thing a shot.

The story composed by The Tree of Life is at first glance somewhat complicated. It begins with the birth of our universe, chronicling the eons chronicling the Earth's beginnings and slowing down once we reach the lives of a seemingly random Waco, Texas family during the 1950's. They're a classic American family, with the hard-working father (Pitt), stay-at-home mother (Jessica Chastain), and three sons, with the story focusing on the eldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken). The film tells the story of Jack growing up and figuring out his route through life; that of his innocent and modest mother's, or his determined but emotionally unstable father's. Meanwhile, the story is told through the memories of the eldest son in modern days (Penn) while remembering his deceased younger brother.

As I stated before, the film essentially begins with the Big Bang, the birth of the universe and Earth as we know it. The photography Malick uses is amazing, and he captures amazing images of volcano eruptions, crashing waves and meteor impacts that simply stun the audience into submission. The evocative visuals of cell division, cosmic dust and planetary birth are given almost biblical treatment, a welcome blend that allows for both science and religion to co-exist (of course, the even brief inclusion of dinosaurs means that anyone on the Religious Right is sure to name it their worst 2011 film). As outstanding as anything Nova or National Geographic can put out, I easily could have put up with this type of movie for two hours and discarded the human element altogether.

Sadly, the human story is both necessary and where the film falters. While Malick does a commendable job at disjointing the story with seemingly random bits and pieces that aren't really part of the story yet accurately reflect the jumble that is the human memory, this element of Tree is marred by boring stretches and yet another trite coming of age story. The question that constantly rears its head (by the main characters, no less) is to the existence of God, why He allows evil to happen, and if He does, why should the characters care to be good? Young Jack will either go down the way of Grace, the path of goodness and charity that his mother has lived, or the way of Nature, the self-serving but strong and profitable route that his father has tread. Unfortunately, this must be explained by voice-over narration, because otherwise the audience would have had an even more difficult time understanding than many of the people in my theater already did. Malick is often guilty of making films that are too intelligent for even some of the smarter audience members out there, and sometimes needs to spell things out to keep these folks engaged.

When the story DOES get cohesive, it becomes unbearable to watch. Frankly, I didn't CARE about this random 1950's family and their issues, religious or otherwise. If I wanted more of that, I'd watch Mad Men. I didn't even care as much about the rampant religious doubt that at first takes over the film and is then seemingly discarded for more mundane issues. Sure, I know I'm not the most religious individual out there, but there could have been some interesting conversation between the film and its audience that for some reason doesn't fully materialize. I would have been more interested in more cosmic images rather than a twenty-minute sequence in which Jack breaks into a neighbor's hose, then feeling guilty about it.

At least there is some good acting to offset the frailties of the story as a whole. Pitt once again surpasses his previous set bar, and his complex portrayal of Jack's well-meaning but distressed father is one more accolade to add to his steadily more impressive resume. Many sons grow up both loving and resenting their fathers, and Pitt captures that essence that makes you feel the same for him even as an adult watching. Chastain is definitely a surprise, the young actress making her mark this year here and in the upcoming The Debt. Though her character is sometimes referred to as naive, Chastain carries a knowledge about her, wisdom that supersedes her innocence. She's easily one of the film's best parts, and when the film focuses on her it's often to the benefit of all. The three sons are each ably played by the young men involved, but only Jack is really focused on, and Hunter McCracken (in his feature film debut) is just good enough to carry the weight of the narrative on his back. I may not believe that Sean Penn really deserved those two Oscars he has been awarded, but he's still a very talented actor in the right situation. That situation isn't here however, and I frankly could have done without the modern day Jack storyline, as while I recognize its importance I still fell the film could have been just as stable without it.

There are those who will commend The Tree of Life for its ambition and vision, those who will cement in their minds that this was indeed the best film of 2011. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, it was greeted with much praise and even won Malick the prestigious Palme d'Or award for being best in show. It has received just as much scrutiny, however, and I fear I must add my voice to that mix of folk who didn't appreciate it nearly as much a the film's backers would hope. If it was all down to technical wizardry, The Tree of Life would have it all, with an amazing mix of wonder and amazement that was fun to see but shouldn't have had to carry the film. With the lackluster human tale in the mix, however, it's more of a wash than it should be. With a thoroughly confusing finale and too much snooze time to contemplate how the film could have been shrunk into a more manageable format, I can't recommend it very highly. I'll stop short of calling it pretentious, but only because I can see from where that impression might come. If you REALLY feel you can understand the effect Malick is going for, or if you are a fan of his previous works, then you can possibly sit through all 138 minutes of The Tree of Life with little to no problem. If however you think Pirates of the Caribbean was the best movie you've seen this year, then you can and should probably skip it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"lackluster human tale"? I was incredibly moved by the family portion of the film. Maybe you expected more of a traditional story, one that builds momentum? That's not really how Malick operates. The child actors (and Pitt and Chastain, for that matter) gave great performances. Note perfect performances. I'm still not sure what to make of the movie, but I can't stop thinking about it. It made me think of the time my brother shot me with a bb gun. Or, of playing kick the can at dusk.

Also, drawing any kind of comparison between this and 'Mad Men' is flat out ridiculous. Might as well compare it to 'Father Knows Best' while you're at it. They're both set in the 50s. That's where the similarities end.