All Style, No Substance
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a beautiful film, but it isn't a good film. While the relevance of this comment within the context of what makes a film “good” can certainly be debated, its clarity becomes immediately evident to anyone who watches the film.
Malick’s camera, under the usual control of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has a way of making us see everyday familiar scenes in a beautiful new light. Things we take for granted, say a leaf on a tree for instance, suddenly take on a new significance under Malick’s eye. The shadow of a child playing on the street, viewed from an upside down camera, becomes a mesmerizing mind toy. Visually stunning yet eminently simple.
Then we see more leaves on trees… and more playful shadows. More leaves. More shadows. And as the artistic imagery begins to pile up, the relevance of it all gets lost in the indulgence of the artist’s palette. Does beauty alone equate to enjoyment? The answer lies somewhere within whichever side of the age-old debate of style vs. substance the viewer lies.
The substance of the film is the O’Brien family. Unnamed husband (Brad Pitt) and wife (Jessica Chastain) are raising a family of three boys in Waco, Texas during the ‘50s. We learn that their middle son has died at the age of 19 but we’re not told how he died. Then again, we’re not told a lot of things in The Tree of Life, but we do understand the grief the boy’s death has caused for the entire family. The story then jumps to Jack (Sean Penn), the eldest of the boys, as a grown man struggling to reconcile the memories of his dead brother and a father who ruled the household with a confusing mix of affection and ruthlessness.
Then comes the style part of the film that features a 20-minute (I swear it seemed longer while watching it) audio-visual lightshow demonstrating the creation of the universe, from the sparks in the cosmos that flare into suns, which warm the planets to sustain life. Globs of bio-organisms wobble to life from the bubbling sulfur pits in the form of single-celled beings, then to dinosaurs, plants, and finally animals. The interstellar journey eventually circles back to Waco, Texas and the O’Brien family. I always knew Waco was more important than it seemed. If you’ve ever become hypnotized by the visualizer function in your iTunes music collection, you already have a fairly good idea of how this segment of the film plays out. Swirling lights and electronic pulses reacting to the tympanic beats of the Alexandre Desplait score. Yes, it’s a beautiful thing to behold, but have you ever been able to outlast 20 minutes of the iTunes visualizer?
So, I’ve covered about 45 minutes of the film. What occupies the remaining 75? More footage of Malick contemplating the mortality, grace, and savage beauty of a single blade of grass. Well, that and some unabashed Bible-thumping and abstract theories of how creationism and evolution can co-exist. Sure, Malick takes a couple of big bites in trying to make a compelling visual argument for the existence and importance of both grace and nature in our beautiful world, but he chokes on connecting the idea to the O’Brien’s. We understand Jack’s grief for his brother. We realize that Mr. O’Brien missed a lot of opportunities in his life and is determined to push his children to be something he wasn’t. But Malick’s handling of the family dynamic -- something he’s always been so good at -- as it relates to where we come from, is a bit overdone. It falls into a few basic shapes and forms, then is repeated over and over throughout the film.
Yes, Malick’s Tree of Life is a beautiful film and its visuals will stay with you for a long time. There’s no question he’s a master visual filmmaker. But his storytelling must now be seriously examined. Making a point in the film’s opening moments, then hammering that point for two solid hours does not a good film make. Malick takes some bold risks and stretches out into the unconventional -- but he comes up dry with a film that’s all style and no substance.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some thematic material.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.