Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: "The Tree of Life"

I’m not going to assign a letter-based rating to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  It would be a pointless endeavor.  I grade films, at least in part, on a relative scale, meaning I must have some point of reference with which to compare.  The Tree of Life cannot be compared to other films; if there is one thing that can be said for the movie, it is wholly unique.  I suspect some writers who have spent all their lives as film critics can say they’ve seen something like The Tree of Life, but for 99% of us, myself included, it’s a completely new experience, one so incredibly different that there’s no way I can convey what watching the film is like.  Malick has quite a bit to say, and the crux of his message is actually quite beautiful; certainly, the film conjures many thoughts and emotions in the viewer’s head, and had I been taking notes, I’m sure I would have filled many pages. 

Yet once I sat down to write this review, I realized I have very little to say about The Tree of Life.  For all its so-called “meaning,” for all the style and craft and ‘grace’ on display, it merely numbed me for over two hours, and left me completely cold afterwards.  This is an example not of style overwhelming substance, but of style beating substance into submission and then running a long, long victory lap.  The Tree of Life is a beautifully crafted movie; the cinematography is some of the best you’ll ever see, with imagery that stands alongside some of the greatest art this medium has to offer.  The editing creates a rhythm that belongs to this film and this film alone, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is devastatingly gorgeous.  Yet the point Malick tries to make is constantly undermined by how he makes that point, and it doesn’t take long for the film to descend into self-parody.

Continue reading after the jump...

As I said before, it’s pointless to attempt describing the film to someone who hasn’t seen it.  I’ll just say that Malick is so uncompromisingly intent on being artistic and meaningful that the true art and meaning of the piece is quickly lost; The Tree of Life is one of the most indulgent films ever made, with roughly the same level of regard for the audience as Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.  There’s no attempt to engage; there is one person and one person alone who will enjoy this film to its fullest, and that’s Malick himself; only he can explain the significance of each image.  For what it’s worth, I feel I understood the film just fine; I caught nearly every bit of symbolism, and the moments I didn’t understand seemed to be deliberately unclear.  Very little of it connected for me; others may think differently.  It depends entirely on how similar the viewer’s mind is in sync with Malick’s, as the film utterly fails to engross an audience wider than the man sitting behind the camera. 

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of interpretive works.  That’s why I wrote about Lost for three years, and that’s why Black Swan was one of my favorite films of 2010.  Playing with style and doing away with linearity can work very well; there’s a reason Pulp Fiction is one of the most influential movies ever made.  Yet those stylistic choices must enhance, not suppress, the meaning of the piece, and Malick’s stylistic flourishes never fail to suck all poignancy from the proceedings.  Interpretation can be organic or it can be forced.  Black Swan, for instance, is a tremendously unconventional movie, but it engages the viewer on a level that makes active interpretation an enjoyable necessity – the meaning stems organically from the style.  The Tree of Life is just as well made, with equally wonderful performances, especially from Brad Pitt.  Yet interpreting this story is an endeavor that constantly feels forced; I only dissected symbolism and looked for meaning to stave off my own boredom, to try making sense of seemingly random imagery.  That’s not organic, and it’s not enjoyable in the slightest. 

There are plenty of moments in the film that come very close to connecting, ones that create palpable emotions in the viewer.  You will reflect on your life and your own choices, just as the film’s characters do.  What makes The Tree of Life so disappointing, then, is how infrequent these moments are.  There’s clearly a masterpiece lying deep beneath the surface, but Malick’s larger choices have squashed that better movie.  Removing style from the equation, even his message becomes murky and unclear past the halfway point.  The film is a mess, albeit an interesting one.  More than anything else, though, it left me numb, and even a little bit depressed.  Far less ambitious films have achieved far more, and I see no reason why The Tree of Life is worth the effort. 

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