Film Review, October 29,2011
Don’t say I didn’t warn you, when your brain gets lost
The movie Tree of Life written and directed by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain with Sean Penn in an oversized walk-on, is simultaneously struck by lightning, uprooted by a hurricane, consumed by a forest fire, chopped down for fire wood, eaten by termites, and processed into toilet paper as the audience fidgets and watches it unfold at an excruciatingly slow pace.
It is spectacular at times but then again so are train wrecks and car crashes. Malick is painting on a very large canvas and dabbles in the existential meaning of life but the core of the story revolves around a family of five growing up in early 1950s middle America; an abusive and controlling father, a frustrated artist and protective mother, and three boys exposed to its harshness, struggling to figure out how to make it in this world.
Tree of Life aims deep – so deep in fact that for the first 15 minutes Malick is exploring the birth of the universe, solar system, Planet Earth and ultimately the evolution of life with spectacular cinematic imagery by Douglass Trumbull set to an equally emotional sound track by Alexandre Desplat. Amazingly in this digital technology age, Malick and Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) did not rely much on computer generated (CGI) techniques that have become ubiquitous in Hollywood blockbusters. Discussing the creative process Trumbull describes:
“We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high-speed photography to see how effective they might be. It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”
The story of the evolution of life was not just dramatic to watch; it was in keeping with the latest scientific knowledge about these phenomena. Malick did his homework and sought out advice and critique from Science consultant, Dr. Andrew H. Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, who worked with Malick and his team for years on the scientific history of life to get it right.
So where did Malick go wrong? Let me count the ways…
1. The connection/parallels between the origin of life and the history of the O’Brien family are obscure at best and leave you puzzled – thinking perhaps the reels from separate movies accidentally got spliced together in the editing room.
2. The movie is non-linear, skipping back and forth through different stages in the life of the family, which when executed effectively is an interesting technique. Here it just compounds the confusion.
3. Much of the focus in the family is on the eldest son, Jack and we see him primarily as a pre-teen as played by Hunter McCracken who did a credible job with what he had to work with. Spliced in randomly however are scenes of Jack later in life as a successful architect played by Sean Penn. Here Jack is merely a mannequin (Penn does not deliver a single line) staring blankly through the glass walls of his office, presumably pondering his rotten childhood.
4. Without revealing any spoilers, piled on top of the tension associated with their father’s Neanderthal vision of his role as patriarch and his resulting abusive behavior, there’s a major family tragedy. Plenty of raw sentiment on which to build an emotional bond with the audience, but by this point we are just numb and too distant to make any real connections.
5. The run time at 139 minutes is way long. A whole bunch more editing and tightening would help but even then, it probably wouldn’t salvage this ambitious cinematic experiment.
As excruciating as this film was for me (and many others in the Stony Brook University Staller Center, many of whom swarmed the exits long before the credits) it did receive some critical acclaim and the top prize (Palme d’Or) at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival when it debuted in May. Considering the love it or hate it response, you might want to check it out for yourself… but don’t say I didn’t warn you, when your brain gets lost.