Tree of Life is the Transformers 2 of art house films. A staggering, overwhelming, and completely bewildering epic that has everything and also nothing at all. It is the most Malicky Terrance Malick film yet and for those that believe this auteur with only four previous films to his name is the greatest director in history, well, you should probably bring some paper towels, because you're going to cream your pants. Tree of Life is Malick's Inland Empire, an absolutely uncompromised artistic vision that borderlines on self parody. It's the type of ultra masturbatory project that only a talented filmmaker could possibly make with a boosted ego from decades of having the international film community blow him. But I imagine diehard fans will flock to the screen and see Tree of Life repeatedly as they had for Inland Empire. I remember the IFC Center running a promotion where if you saw Inland Empire seven times, the eighth was free. I thought it must have been a lark, but it wasn't.
It's taken me a week, two full cases of lions head, and nearly two bottles of Maker's Mark to compile this review and I still don't know where to begin. So let's start with Shakespeare. The bard famously stated that there are only seven different stories that can be told. While there may be an infinite number of variances in telling those stories, if you were to look at the entire history of art and deconstruct all of the millions of films, novels, plays, short stories, and songs, and boil them down to their essential themes and ideas, there is actually very little to separate or differentiate one from the other.
Over the years of attending hundreds of film festivals and living a better part of my life in a darkened movie theater, I sometimes wonder if it's less than seven in cinema. In the film world, it's probably closer to five, in the art house world, it's maybe three. There seems to be two themes in particular that embody the bulk of independent film the world over. There are the "I didn't get laid as a teenager and now I'm angsty" film and the "Daddy didn't love me and now I'm angsty" film. And what can I say? I'm sucker for both because I'm a filmmaker myself and I didn't get laid as a teenager and daddy didn't love me. Affliction, Aberdeen, even Ang Lee's The Hulk, these are the films I find myself relating to most. Tree of Life absolutely falls in this category.
So is it the ultimate "Daddy didn't love me film?"
Through unfortunate circumstances, I stumbled into the opening night screening on a heavy bender, disgruntled from a horrific evening with my own father at the most fucked up wake imaginable. This is a man who often told me while growing up that he'd never would have taken to drinking had I been a blowjob or if mom didn't lie about getting an abortion and tricked him into having me.
I went into the film in an emotionally volatile state, my mind reeling with my own childhood memories and a barely standing relationship with my own father. Would this be a joyous reaffirmation of life? Would it serve as a catharsis? Or maybe it'd just put me to sleep.
I'm still picking through the information, and while a lot of you are probably already arming your pitchforks and preparing for a flame war, my drunken opinion of this film is only that, an opinion. I repeat, a drunken opinion. And regardless whether I liked or enjoyed the film, I respect and admire it, and whole heartily recommend it. But it is also just as deserving of a lambasting roast as a movie about aliens that turn into cars and fight. And on that note.....
Nostalgia plays a large role in Malick's opus. I'd reference Harry Knowles review but then again, he's addicted to nostalgia like a North Philly dope fiend is addicted to the rock. In fact, it seems our whole collective post modern society has become obsessed with a need to feel nostalgic. I'm not old enough to know if it's always been that way. But I don't remember many films in the 80's being built around toys or board games from the 50's or 60's. I don't see how marketing Super 8 not on the merits of its own, but as a nostalgic homage to Amblin entertainment is a good thing.
The first hour of Tree of Life is a hallucinatory opus that correlates the birth of the universe with a suburban family's daily life in Texas. You know this already.
What you may not know is that there isn't any actual narrative or character arches.The film is completely plotless. Instead, Malice edits the film like a drunkenly beautiful dream of half forgotten memories, common everyday memories, these are the memories we all share. Malick gives no context for the scenes weaving them together in a fashion to allow the audience to witness events as children themselves. There is a youthful wonder mixed with juvenile contempt. The film will remind you of the exquisite beauty and fascination that the simplest of earthly things may have had on you as a child. It's similar in achievement to the first 15 minutes of Where the Wild Things Are.
This is a film about the human experience, yet, Malick paints his characters with such broad strokes that it ends up becoming alienating to the point of being frustrating.
One might wonder if Malick's intention was to make this relatable to everyone or the opposite. Maybe these are his memories. Is he laying out his own story with complete disregard for his audience? Am I watching an artist's therapy session? Albiet, a very pretty, beautifully shot and very expensive therapy session.
Tree of Life is a poem. It flows like a poem, and is challenging like a good poem. But I don't fucking like poems, I mostly find them to be artistic diarrhea.
There comes a point when you realize that the film isn't ever going to go anywhere, that there won't be any type of emotional or narrative payoff. Well, Sean Penn does walk around on the beach and see his parents. I still can't decide if Sean Penn was dead or if Malick decided to make a college experimental film with the last 15 minutes. But when I realized I wasn't going to ever have anything to actually follow, I simply stopped giving a fuck about the film. It's a film to be experienced rather than viewed, similar to Enter the Void. My bias is that Void's material resonated with me, Tree of Life's did not. I remained enraptured with the beauty of the images, but I tired of the story or lack thereof.
Yes, yes yes. There is god in everything. There is god in the grass, beauty in every particle of dust that shakes off the living room window curtain in the morning glow. "And magnets are magical, just how do they work?" You probably couldn't hear it, but I just farted.
Brad Pitt's father figure is a tough and emotionally manipulative man. By no means is he a good father, but he isn't a bad man either, and he certainly doesn't serve as some icon of the quintessential abusive dad. I think that's the point, but then again, I can't tell if that's the point, and not knowing the point may be the point. Oh, it's just about a normal family with normal conflicts and drama. Yet critics and all the whiny hipsters in my audience have talked about Brad Pitt's actions and the horrific ways he tries to toughen his children up. "The man was a monster", "A horrifying bully of a father"
Really? I think your cupcakes are nearly done.
It's difficult to tell if Malick finds the human experience beautiful or futile and meaningless. In many ways, Tree of Life is a comment on the American Dream. The American Dream of the 1950's, where being successful is having a family and a large suburban home, is juxtaposed with the American Dream of the 21st century. Today, success comes from independence, and the big city holds more stature than suburban sprawl.
The warmth and space of 1950's suburbia was only a subterfuge to mask man's darker yearning for strength and power. It was a facade. What made a man of the 1950's also held him back. Meanwhile, the glitz and glean of contemporary city life is cold and artificial. The loneliest most alienating places are most often over-crowded cities.
It's just damn hard to be an average, successful white guy. You've either sacrificed your artistic ambitions to enter a loveless marriage with a bunch of snot nosed brats you don't want, or you land your dream job and live at the top in Manhattan only to find that you're emotionally dead inside while saddled with really sad memories of your mean daddy. There's just no winning..
Look at Sean Pean, he looks so sad, he doesn't even talk he's so sad. He walks around Manhattan thinking about his daddy. Wait, he's on the beach. Is he dead? Do I care?
God is an asshole father. He made us, pushed us down, knocked us around, and then left us to fend for ourselves, that fucking bastard.
I do want to say that I really liked the dinosaurs and had I pre-gamed this film like I would Pink Floyd's The Wall, the first hour might have been the type of religious experience everyone's been claiming. Maybe I would have found god in the luscious volcano photography and nonsensical voiceover that's spoken in whispers more hushed than The Sixth Sense.
The film works on a crazy logic with calculated yet obtuse images. We briefly see a dinosaur dying on the shoreline, an image that will surely be analyzed and deconstructed. Of all things Malick could have shown, why that? I guess I need to read a bible to find out, but that's not going to fucking happen. It's like the Cremaster Cycle for existential Christian Scientists with a bachelor's in philosophy...Still, the film almost feels restrained. Why not go all out? Show us dinosaurs fucking. I want to see animals eating their young. How about half evolved apes beating up their mating partners? Really drive that point home.
There is a big positive to Tree of Life. Shot on 35mm, it reminds us just how ugly Red camera footage is and that all these little fuckers out there making films on their digital SLRs will never capture the same impressive beauty. Fuck your Canon Eos 7ds.
But the more that I think about the film and its more devout supporters, the angrier I get. But then again, I'm feeling rather punch drunk right as I write this. It is father's day afterall, but I'm pre-gaming for my obligatory dinner.
This is the type of emotionally blind rage that can only come from the toxic combination of Schlitz and Bean shots followed by a double shot Vodka sour.
I've heard so many elitist proclamations from fellow programmers and writers in regards to Tree of Life where they've gone so far to insult anyone who isn't absolutely in love with the film as though Tree of Life is a Rorschach test for good taste, intelligence, and soul. Other critics might have you believe that "If you don't get or like Tree of Life, then you're an idiot, that you must be some type of brain-dead soulless piece of trailer trash." Well, I would like to counteract that by saying if that's what you think, then you're a boring and average person who's lived a boring and average life and that's why you were so moved by this film. Now go bake some more cupcakes and listen to your Bell and Sebatasian while talking about obscure books you've never actually read, you twat.