Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Tree of Life

"Nants ingonyama bagithi baba.  Sithi uhhmm ingonyama:"  this is what was running through my mind five minutes after finishing The Tree of Life --- the opening lines to The Lion King's "Circle of Life" (yes, I had to look up the spelling).  Is that subliminal connection a good thing, or was my mind just trying in vain to make sense out of a notoriously difficult film?  Honestly, I don't know the significance of the song to this movie; I just found it amusing that that is where my mind wandered to as I pondered The Tree of Life.

This is not one of those movies that is going to reel you in by its narrative.  Essentially, the adult Jack (Sean Penn) is, in modern times, pondering his place in the world and the nature of man.  His mind flashes back to his childhood, raised by a strict and often angry father (Brad Pitt) and a saintly mother (Jessica Chastain), along with his two younger brothers.  The young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is very much like his father, while his brothers are very much like their mother.  And then this happens:
That, naturally, is followed by this:
...which, of course, leads to dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs and pretension, together at last

And then we resume Jack's stroll down memory lane.  No, you didn't miss anything.  Jack then winds up in a ridiculously remote location with doubtlessly metaphorical significance, we see some dead people, and now the movie is over.
Jack, busy ignoring that 127 Hours guy

If absolutely nothing else, The Tree of Life is designed to elicit a response from its viewers.  Confusion, hatred, love, whatever --- you're not left indifferent.  I saw it in the theater this weekend, and I was the only one of my group that did not absolutely loathe the film.  I could be wrong, but I believe my wife would have peed on Terrence Malick that night, given the chance.  The audience groaned whenever a fade to black became a fade-in, and this is one of the few movies I have seen in a long while where the audience --- filled with people paying to see a Best Picture nominee marathon, mind you --- wound up talking amongst themselves and giggling inappropriately.  I'm sure some people in that theater were absolutely blown away by Terrence Malick's most recent effort, but it was certainly not designed for the masses. 

The acting in The Tree of Life is universally solid, even when you're not sure what the hell is going on.  Brad Pitt handled a complex role as a do-it-yourself man that never did "it" good enough to be successful and happy; he is seen as an angry force of nature by Jack, but Pitt still makes this character sympathetic.  
Example: he doesn't eat this baby
Of course, to do this, Pitt sports the annoying under-bite he sometimes likes to use when playing Southern characters.  Jessica Chastain was also good as Jack's mother, but I didn't feel that her role was as compelling as Pitt's.  The only flaw she seemed to have was an inability to handle her husband's impotent rage, or at least protect her children from it; since the husband wasn't actually evil or physically abusive, though, that flaw isn't the defining point of her character.  Instead, she is the example of Heavenly Grace in this film.  There's nothing wrong with that, it just isn't too interesting from a character development standpoint.  Hunter McCracken did an impressive job as the troubled Young Jack.  He internalized a lot of struggles, and the way he lashed out at his parents felt true.  He's not a pretty kid, though.  Sean Penn just walked around looking mopey.  His character didn't have much time onscreen, but Penn still delivered a surprisingly bland performance.  I also liked Tye Sheridan as the sensitive, artsy brother, more because he was expressive than for any other real reason.

The acting was never going to be what made or broke The Tree of Life, though.  That depended entirely on writer/director Terrence Malick.  This is only the fifth film directed by Malick, although he has been directing since 1973, and it is based on a screenplay he began writing in the late 1970s.  Needless to say, Malick has put a lot of thought into this film.  Unfortunately for many viewers, none of those thoughts involved making this film easily comprehensible.  There is no denying that the cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning.  Even when you aren't sure what you are looking at, the images are impressive.
Above: nucleotides, maybe?
I also appreciated the complex acting Malick got from his cast in a film without a lot of revealing dialogue.  This is definitely a film that relies on the actions of the characters over their lines, and the performances were all good (with the exception of Penn), subtle and complex.

Having said all that, what the hell happened in this movie?  It jumps from a disjointed, nonlinear narrative about some kids growing up in the 1950s to an extended break (anywhere from 15-3000 minutes --- I didn't think to time it) with no acting, voice-over, or anything --- just shot after shot of outtakes from a planetarium laser show.  The images were gorgeous, but they didn't have any direct connection to the story.  And then dinosaurs happen, and I could hear audience members mentally checking out.
...aaaaand I'm done
I have no doubt that this sequence will become as famous/infamous as 2001's space baby.  So, if Kubrick pissed you off with that ending, you probably don't want to see a movie where that sort of sequence shows up in the middle without any explicit explanation.  

But let's ignore the cinematographic masturbation for a moment and focus on the rest of the film.  It's still incredibly obtuse.  There are many back-lit shots that the camera lingers on, but do not hold any explicit connection to the story at large.  And I hope you like trees, because The Tree of Life makes sure you notice them by holding still life shots for a loooong time, like Malick was waiting for the Ents to awaken or something.
Voice-over: "TREES, BITCHES!"
And I hope you like philosophical questions being whispered as voice-over, because that is something else this movie has in spades.  If I watch this again, I will have a hard time not calling out "Ricola" whenever Chastain or McCracken whispers sweet existential nothings in my ears.  There is also the confusing focus of the flashback scenes, where important things seem to happen (a neighbor's house burns down, somebody has a seizure, a brother dies at age 19, etc.), but are never really addressed again.  

If you hate The Tree of Life, I completely understand.  Personally, I can only take so much existential crap before my body starts rejecting it, and I can believe that this film has more than most people would like to handle.  However, I didn't quite hit my limit.  I thought this was a fantastically shot movie with interesting performances and a refreshing amount of directorial intent.  I didn't like it much, but I appreciate it for what it is.  It's hard to find a movie that so so obviously odd, that is striving so hard to tell a particular point of view instead of just going after emotions with broad strokes; The Tree of Life will probably end up like The Velvet Underground and Nico --- not many people will like it, but those that do will make their own films, or at least look for more challenging cinema than what Hollywood has to offer.  And that's a good thing for film as an art form and as a continuously evolving commercial product.  What kept me from liking the movie (believe it or not) was not the "history of life" interlude, but the core story.  I never connected to Jack; I found him repulsive as a child and completely uninteresting as an adult.  The issues he's dealing with are fairly universal, but I never felt emotionally invested in this philosophical lecture or in the characters involved.
Is Jack being shown affection or love?  I don't really care
Maybe I'm a little strange.  Well, I'm definitely strange, but it strikes me as odd that this, an obviously personal film that Malick put an impressive amount of time and thought into, would leave me almost indifferent.  Oh well.  Since it failed to entice me emotionally or philosophically and because the whole thing was pretty damn pretentious, I'm giving The Tree of Life

I will recommend this movie to anyone who is a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Fountain.  Just don't make me watch it with you.

Now, if you have already seen the movie and are trying to figure out what it was about, here's my take:

Brian's story analysis of The Tree of Life
The movie boils down to the premise introduced by Jessica Chastain's character at the very beginning, the struggle between Grace and Nature; Grace (embodied by mommy) is kind and loving and wants everything and everybody to be nice and recognize the glory all around us, while Nature is competitive and very much based in the daily struggle of man.  Or you can think of it as Big Picture vs. Little Picture, whatever works for you.
You can also dumb the message down to "don't sweat the small stuff"
Adult Jack, for whatever reason, starts to reflect on his life.  He has always been more like his father (Nature) than his mother (Grace), and he's contemplating the value of what he has achieved as a successful businessman.  He wants to go back to that innocent time as a child when he felt in touch with Grace.  The flashbacks are shown in seemingly random snippets because that's how the mind reflects; when you remember something, it's usually a jumble of images, not a coherent and chronological retelling.  That also explains why seemingly important moments are glossed over; they did not directly impact Jack's memory at that time, so he just remembers being told to go inside when the neighbor had a seizure.  The yearning to go back to innocence also makes Jack question the place of man in the world, which leads to the whole Discovery channel acid trip.  Ultimately, Jack arrives at the moment when his father, Nature personified, went through the same life crisis and reevaluated his life.  The ending with all the friends and family, past and present, is Jack accepting his place in the world, with Grace.  It's the circle of life.
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!  Sithi uhhmm ingonyama!


  1. I went into this movie with high expectations, as I am a huge Malick fan. As I was watching the movie, I was something less than impressed. After leaving the theater (which oddly had fewer people in it than when the movie began - note: discovery channel scene), I was able to reflect more and appreciate some of it. In fact, after the viewing, I thought about this film much more than any movie in recent memory.

    That said, I do not particularly care for this film as a "movie." It is closer to a visual arts project than a movie. It throws a lot of ideas and imagery at you, and ultimately, I think you are suppose to take whatever you want from the experience. Much of my reflecting had to do with relating the snippets of Jack's early life to that of my own. I felt that these moments were some of the most natural/believable scenes from contemporary cinema, enhanced by Malick focusing on many un-noteworthy clips. It was just common life, as if we were just watching someone's family and not a movie.

    As subtle as the flashbacks were, the discovery channel mini-film jack-knifed out of nowhere was some of the most pretentious work of this decade. However, I dung the dinos. I believe the one dino letting the other live was in there to raise the question of whether nature can ever be benevolent - which I thought was neat.

    Overall, this flick is a trying experience that I think is worthwhile, but hardly a dynamite movie and certainly not for everyone... or 90% of the population.

    1. I liked that dino scene, too. I will agree that the acting was extremely natural, especially from the ugly kid. I've read a few reviews since posting this, and I've noticed a common theme --- this movie seems to resonate more for people that had gruff or harsh father figures. My dad is a fairly laid-back goofball, so maybe that's why the emotional parts didn't click for me.

  2. Your review really sums up how I felt after watching it. I was confused and unsatisfied, but didn't unequivocally dislike it. The acting was really solid and it was beautifully filmed. I just didn't...get it. I also agree that I found tye Sheridan's character far more interesting and often found myself wishing the movie would focus more on him. I also really like your analysis, because I was so dumbfounded by the end of the movie I couldn't even come close to figuring out those things. But I think you're right on target.

    1. Gee, thanks. I think 80% of the script focused on leaving the audience dumbfounded.

  3. I would absolutely agree with you there. And in that aspect, it absolutely succeeded.