May 31, 2011
REVIEW: The Tree of Life (dir. Malick)
Does Terrence Malick intend Sean Penn's die-job in The Tree of Life as an example of mankind's corruption of the Natural Order? Why must every character weave their hand through the sunlight like a dolphin coasting through waves? Where does Jessica Chastain get all her dresses? Where do we come from? Where are we going? And if I work it out before Brad Pitt unfurrows his brow do I get a prize? Such heretical thoughts were prompted by the new Malick flick which the wife and I caught this afternoon. I say "caught" and "flick" advisedly since the whole experience more closely resembles that of going to church to kneel in prayer that Malick may deliver us from the Evils of Cinema. The effect he's going for is the cinematic equivalent of six Hail Mary and half-a-dozen Our Fathers. You emerge from the experience feeling as if the better angels of your nature have had an all-expenses-paid spa weekend for two. You feel as if no video clerk will ever be able to chastise your film choices ever again. Not with this puppy in the bank. One viewing and you've pretty much earned the right to watch as many crappy superhero flicks and summer blockbusters as you like — whole franchise streams, Troglodyte cycles, Orc sagas, junk marathons, as much popcorn as you can eat. Bring it on, Captain America! Beam me up, Steven Spielberg! Ahem. You'll have to excuse my tone. It's what happens after two-and-a-half hours suppressing my lower instincts. Sex. Humor. Irony. Plot. Dialogue. Pretty much all the things the critics said were missing from this picture are indeed absent and unaccounted for; my only complaint is that it is not nearly as boring as some have suggested. For a good hour in the middle there, I was wholly absorbed by Malick's account of growing up in Waco, Texas in the shadow of his father, played here by a stern, stony-jawed Brad Pitt, and the (sinuous, sun-dappled) shadow of his mother, played here by Jessica Chastain, an actress of such pale, sculpted beauty that when butterflies land on her you simply accept it as you do Snow White's way with the morning lark. Chastain is shot from the breastbone looking up, to accentuate her mythic stature, or in silhouette against clean linen sheets, to suggest her diaphanous nature and fleeting detachment from this all-too-sullied earth. Malick's attempt to convert cinema into a Joycean novel-of-consciousness is surprisingly effective, largely thanks to the fact that childhood itself, particularly early childhood, is largely devoid of sex, humor, irony, memorable dialogue and so on, too. All I can remember are huge, ambient washes of feeling — safety, threat, joy, despair — all meeting and merging like coalescing cumulus. And if there's anybody who can capture this internal weather — with all its barometric build-ups, cloud bursts and lightning strikes — it's Malick. Hollywood's long-lost auteur is also cinema's answer to the weather channel. There is some lovely behavioral stuff here about brothers and the tender, fretful static that flies between them.
Would that Malick had left it there. It should have been enough. It gives me no pleasure to report, however, that in addition to making this supple, impressionistic film about childhood, he has also squared off against his demons, summoned hither his muse and succumbed to the entirely regrettable impulse to deliver a masterpiece. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a relaxed, laissez-faire position towards many things — character arcs, sequels, special effects, Adam Sandler — but a zero-tolerance policy for talk of masterpieces. I found There Will be Blood a monotonous dirge. The only Kubrick film I really like is The Shining. I find Strangers on a Train preferable to Vertigo. The reason people like Vertigo so much, I've found, is that it's the least Hitchcocklike of Hitchcock's films. It's too long, its plot wanders, and it contains no jokes. Same with the White Album: the one Beatles album that sounds least like The Beatles. Which makes me wonder about the people who call it their 'masterpiece', as I wonder about the people who say the same thing about Vertigo. They tend to be the same people who talk of "transcending" genre, and refer to directors as "masters", as if cinema were something to be bent to the will of a single man, rather than forged in the roughhouse of creative collaboration. The trouble with Malick's "mastery" of his movies is that he tends to overwhelm them, blenderizing his characters into one vast, soupy Malick-consciousness, thinking the same Malicky thoughts, expressed in the same Malicky way. There is barely a line in The Tree of Life that couldn't be uttered by any or all of the characters — and some are. Gestures are repeated, longings pool, Whitmanesque reverie breaks its banks, flooding all. Malick is a dreadfully incurious artist when it comes to things like work or sex, which rules out his ability to offer solace or wisdom on about 80% of the human condition — which is odd, when you think about it, because the human condition is pretty much the one horse Malick has put all his money on. If he doesn't get that, then what's the point of him? To be worshipped, I guess, although Malick's "depth" is too often just a bunch of fancy reverb effects; the much-vaunted theme of The Tree of Life just needless amplification. So in addition to Malick's tender, fretful evocation of childhood's lost Eden, we get an actual, literal Eden: a history of the world in 25 chapters, complete with dinosaurs, lava flows and angelic choirs, plus a climax set, I think, in the afterlife, where the entire cast get to hold hands and gaze into one another's eyes while walking across a white sandy beach suspiciously similar to the white sandy beach last used to represent the hereafter or sell sanitary napkins, or life insurance, depending on which channel you chance upon. That's how you know its a 'masterpiece': the redundant stuff about dinosaurs and beaches. I know there are people who drop to their knees at the mere mention of Malick's name, so I'll put this as delicately as I can: using the books of Genesis and Revelation as bookends for an otherwise mesmeric bildungsroman about childhood is simply a very bad idea —grandiose, over-literal and structurally ugly. To tell a tale of childhood so well that people compare it to the story of Genesis would be a wondrous thing. To supply the comparison yourself, not so much. A nice performance from Pitt, though, maybe his best. B-