Malick’s Tree of Life is an Overindulgent Mess

By theredraylives | February 25, 2012

Tree of Life
dir. Terrence Malick
Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Two out of Five Stars

Close your eyes. Now imagine that writer/director Terrence Malick (this guy) is walking up to you holding a revolver in his hand. It’s dark, there’s no one else around… it’s just the two of you. You’re paralyzed, not from fear or confusion, but from some toxin that you’re sure has been laced throughout your system and you can’t entirely remember why. He is right in front of you now. He pulls up his arm; a glimmer of light shines off the revolver, the sudden brightness overwhelming your eyes. He cocks the gun, saying nothing, booming classical music erupting all around you. He then fires every single one of the six shots in rapid succession, directly into your forehead. The last thing you see is an explosion of blood, the last sound you hear the swelling orchestra, and there stands Malick, still holding the smoking revolver. After sitting through ‘Tree of Life,’ this is exactly what you’ll wish you’d sat through instead.

Tree of Life is, in no uncertain terms, a cinematic labyrinth. It is pretentious to the point of ridiculousness, it spends huge chunks of screentime on colossal metaphors and thematic similarities that have next to nothing to do with the narrative, and is half narrated by whispers that are barely audible, particularly when the volume is cranked down after the thunderous and booming classical score. It is a film that intends to be deep and intuitive, it is beautifully shot but each and every shot is more meaningless than the last- okay, that’s not entirely fair. Each shot is rich and full of meaning, but it’s all the same meaning. It is thematically bloated and overindulgent, and clearly the narrative means little to Malick as he deviates from it constantly to bombard the audience with more thematic similarities and metaphors. A much better experience might be listening to the score in a dark room. One must imagine that somewhere in the process of making Tree of Life, the whole thing escaped Malick, and he just kept going because no one told him to stop.

The narrative follows Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), whose complex relationship with his father (Brad Pitt) and the death of his brother has haunted him his entire life. His is a struggle to come to terms with who he is, with his relationship with his father, and to accept his brother’s death. The film is thick with religious allegory as well, as the family struggles with the “decision” made by god to take away their son, and they must come to terms with this and forgive god for his death. As a narrative alone it is full of promise and is actually not executed terribly. Malick is clearly a director with a vision and his use of metaphor and extensive visual imagery to tell this story is an excellent tool. The problem with the film stems from the fact that Malick is like a little kid trapped in a candy store, in that no matter how much his stomach hurts he keeps shoveling in mouthful after mouthful of candy. The film interrupts the narrative constantly to go on and on with extended metaphors about the story’s many themes, extended metaphors about the characters and their story arcs, and at one point to go on what must be a 25 minute journey to chronicle the beginning of life and existence as we know it (all as a massive compliment to the theme of life and death, specifically to show that in the universe, things are “born” and things “die” literally all the time as part of the natural cycle of life- something that the family has to come to terms with to accept the younger brother’s death). It is mind-numbing to sit through. The metaphor this review opens with is exactly what watching this film feels like- only the gun is this movie, and the bullets are the metaphors, and Malick just keeps re-loading. One can shoot something in the face 50 times, but the first or second shot is probably going to be enough to kill it.

The film is not entirely void of merit. Pitt in particular gives a great performance as Mr. O’Brien, the father who gave up his dreams to struggle in a world where he simply cannot be victorious. Penn is great as well, even though he has no actual spoken lines in the film (all of his lines are voice-over narration throughout the film). The film is certainly beautifully shot. When the film goes from scene to scene all of the shots are fantastic. The best part of the entire film has to be its music, however, which is a score rich with classical music from the likes of Bach and Mozart. It is raw and emotional and, despite how overindulgent a good deal of the shots in the film are, it complements them perfectly. The only point of contention is about the sound mixing, which is all over the place- the whispered narration laced through the film is extremely quiet, while the score is incredibly loud, so expect to adjust the volume several times during the viewing of this film.

It is, quite simply, a shame that this film wasn’t more streamlined and cut down better. Metaphor and long, drawn-out sequences about heavy themes such as the ones in this film are wonderful when they’re done in moderation. A word this review keeps coming back to is overindulgent- no one word can better sum up Tree of Life. Somewhere in this colossal mess is a brilliant film, but somewhere between the plesiosaur staring at the gaping wound in its back and a shot of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) “giving her son to god” (and accepting his death) being shown at least 5 times, it was lost. Lucky for that plesiosaur, it went extinct millions of years before this film was made, so it did not have to waste two and a half hours that it will never get back. Two out of Five Stars.

By Nicholas Haskins

Still planning on indulging in overindulgence? Check out the trailer. You can find this review and other reviews over at my examiner.com page. As always, you can follow me on Twitter or book my face. Also, be sure to follow along on Black Entertainment USA as I live-blog the Oscars! Coverage begins at 6:00 PM on Oscar Sunday!! See you there!!!!

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