The Tree of Life
Writing about director Terence Malick’s new film, “The Tree of Life,” feels a little like the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Which movie did I see? Did I see the film that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film festival, or the film that received a mixed reaction, of both applause and “boos,” at the Cannes festival? Obviously it is the same movie, regardless of interpretation but, I think, interpretation may be the key element for film-goers to decide how they feel about this movie.
I felt the need to look to some of my fellow critics for help on this one. It seems that they were all given the “Cliff’s Notes” for “The Tree of Life” and I was not. Critics usually are given press notes, by a film’s publicist, which have a detailed synopsis of the particular film or, in the case of “The Tree of Life,” most likely an incredibly detailed explanation, so that they can all claim they “got” it when writing their critiques. I, however, saw the film this past Friday, its opening day, at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, on Houston Street. Not having press notes, I was left to fend for my myself, a fate, no doubt, to be shared with all “regular” film-goers, particularly those who thought they were just lining up to see the latest Brad Pitt movie.
To be fair, I knew what I was getting myself into. I have seen Malick’s films before. “The Tree of Life” is only the reclusive director’s fifth movie in 38 years. My most memorable outing to a Malick film was “The Thin Red Line” (1998), which I saw with a group of reasonably intelligent people, none of whom could figure out the film’s story. My luck here was a little better, but not by much.
I was intrigued by the trailer for “The Tree of Life.” A movie’s trailer will convey a certain emotion and sense of a film without giving away too much of the film’s story (although some trailers do the latter to a fault). I found the movie to be a longer version of the trailer, in that I could not get as firm a grasp on the story as I needed. It is probably unfair for me to attempt to put a narrative frame around a movie like “The Tree of Life.” Then again the film did require my attention for nearly two and a half hours so I do not think expecting a story was unreasonable.
On the positive side, there is much to admire in “The Tree of Life.” The film has been beautifully photographed, by Emmanuel Lubezki. The film’s imagery is gorgeous, poetic and lyrical. The cast is very good and includes, in addition to Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain and three terrific, natural as can be, actors who play the family’s young sons.
The story (if “story” is the word to use) takes on everything from the creation of the world through the age of the dinosaurs, and settles on a 1950s suburban American family, in which Pitt plays a rather mean, authoritarian, father. The family dynamic reminded me of “The Great Santini” (1979). I just wish that there had been a clearer story to it all. We are given hints as to what is going on with this family, but that was not enough, at least for me.
“The Tree of Life” is beautiful to look at, but challenging to understand.
The Tree of Life, Director Terence Malick, 2011,
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 138 minutes, PG-13