REVIEW: Tree of Life Is About Life All Right; But Does Malick Care Much for People?
Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is gorgeous to look at. It's also a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption masquerading as spiritual exploration. If God really is in the details, it's true that Malick does care about craftsmanship: He's clearly poured thought and care into the images and the editing, and the sections of the film in which characters are actually allowed to interact -- instead of just issuing forth in ponderous voice-overs as images of cosmic tadpoles and Ansel Adams-style calendar shots fill the screen -- manage some degree of dramatic intensity.
But through much of The Tree of Life, Malick, characteristically, doesn't seem to care much for people at all. Desert rock formations, rushing streams, sunflowers waving gently in the sun, and all sorts of cradle-of-life folderol are the things that really rock his world -- he cuts to them whenever he needs to try to explain the inexplicable, which is often. This is a movie about spiritual searching, about reckoning with the nature of God and his frustrating insistence on allowing suffering in the world. We know that because the movie's characters tell us what they're thinking, repeatedly, in voice-over: "How did she bear it? Mother." "Lord -- why?" Never trust an actor's face to convey complicated feelings when you can just dub in words.
We know at the beginning of The Tree of Life that we're dealing with a family who has suffered tremendous grief. After an opening containing shots of those aforementioned sunflowers and a girl cuddling a goat, we see visual fragments, like bits torn from a scrapbook, of a seemingly once-happy family: There's a mother (Jessica Chastain) twirling about in '50s sundresses; a stern, sensible-looking dad in a wiffle cut (Brad Pitt); and two or three cavorting little boys (it's hard to count them, they're moving so fast) enjoying idyllic 1950s American suburbia.
Which can't be idyllic forever: We learn that one son, one of those little boys (who has since grown into a young man), has died. The family is torn by grief. Mother is wearing 60s-style mourning clothes. Cut ahead, many years later: Sean Penn is working in some giant, slick glass building; it's apparently the anniversary of his brother's death, and you can tell he's sad because he's scowling, but mostly because he tells us so, once again in voice-over.
Here is where Malick takes a breather to ponder the origins of life: It begins, apparently, with a shiny, glowing, pinky-blue light-up mussel floating in black space. Next, there are some bubbles of primordial ooze and some jellyfish. Dinosaurs appear (and they are pretty good dinosaurs, the one thing in Tree of Life that impart a genuine sense of wonder). At the conclusion of this planetarium show, we're returned to '50s Waco, Texas, to learn more about that family.
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