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The Tree of Life - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Tree of Life
Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: C+

There's clearly a huge amount of talent that went into the making of The Tree of Life, and that includes writer-director Terrence Malick. But, much like The Thin Red Line (1998) or The New World (2005) before it, it feels like something that could have been overtly profound, but was "creatively" edited nearly to the point of incomprehensibility.

Malick films are an acquired taste, and I think maybe I just have yet to acquire it. This offering is gaining far more favor with critics than any other film by Malick since 1978's Days of Heaven -- the film he waited twenty years to follow-up with the similarly incomprehensible The Thin Red Line. Maybe I'm missing something. To me, it just came across as pointlessly grandiose, pretentious, and over-reaching. If there is some genius metaphorical representation going on, I totally missed it. Probably because I kept nodding off.

It's difficult even to summarize a story here -- because at its core, there isn't one. The Tree of Life is like a series of vignettes, many of them lasting a split second, and combining two separate specific tracks to discombobulating effect. On the one hand, there is the life of three children in the city of Waco in the 1950s, with Brad Pitt as their authoritative father and Jessica Chastain as their borderline ethereal mother. On the other, there's The History of Time, from the Big Bang all the way up to the 20th Century and beyond -- sort of, maybe.

Oh, and then there's the 21st-Century element, which makes the least sense of all (yes, even less sense than a cinematic History of Time): Sean Penn as Pitt's now-grown eldest son, leading an apparently tortured existence in a sterile corporate universe. How or why he's tortured is never made clear, both because Penn is not given a single solid line (we hear him speak, but only in mumbled, dreamlike conversations as the camera just happens to be passing through) and because this element of the story is strikingly under-developed. Penn is given comparatively little screen time, which gives him no chance at all to showcase his acting talents. It's a strange thing indeed when Penn, a one-man acting powerhouse, is significantly outshone by Brad Pitt, who is talented but nowhere near of the same caliber.

The inter-cutting of the History of Time with the Pitt, Chastain and their children brings with it the vague assumption that what we are seeing of this 1950s Texan family has some implication not just to their specific story -- which itself has no real beginning, middle, or end -- but to the Meaning of Life itself. But I just couldn't find the connection. The effect was an alternation between being perplexed and being truly bored, because the film refuses to go anywhere clearly defined.

I fact, the way it's edited, the entire film is exactly like watching the trailer, just extended to 138 minutes. It offers no greater insight, no deeper depth of story. You'll get precisely the same effect from the trailer but won't have wasted nearly as much time.

That is, if you're anything like me, anyway. I can't bring myself truly to pan this movie definitively because it does display an unusually admirable ambition. To my mind, in the end it fails, but I can see how it might intrigue others than it did me. There is a key difference, however: this is not a populist film (the shockingly crowded 12:45 p.m. Sunday matinee I attended notwithstanding). If you go to movies to be entertained, this is a film best avoided. If you go to be challenged, then this is certainly for you. I tend to fall squarely in the middle of those extremes, and a movie like The Tree of Life just makes me feel like I'm more feeble-minded than I thought and in the end I'm not intellectual enough for its target audience.

That said, much of the imagery is truly stunning. There's a clear and specific conscientiousness to every single frame, whether it's the hand-held camera work following Pitt and his family, or the wide shots of the cosmos taking form, or even the couple of shots that focus on dinosaurs making their own way during their position in evolution. There's a physical exchange between two dinosaurs in a shallow river that's surprisingly thought-provoking, easily setting it apart from any other scene displaying realistically CGI-rendered extinct creatures. Then: cut to the exterior shot of Earth, and the impact of the meteor assumed to have been responsible for their mass extinction.

Parts of The Tree of Life, while obtusely avoiding anything resembling a clear-cut story, are rather mesmerizing. The question then becomes whether or not you want your movie-going experience to resemble a quiet afternoon in an art museum. Because this is clearly intended in large part as the cinematic equivalent of a work of art, with Malick using his cameras as wide brush strokes than span both time and space. If you go into it with that expectation, then you might have a better time watching it than I did. Although I still have no idea what the Big Bang or a Mass Extinction have to do with an emotionally stunted father's relationship with his children. These characters are presented as pretty regular people and nothing more; they're not that significant.

Brad Pitt takes the kids on an endless journey that feels like the total span of all time in 'The Tree of Life'.

Overall: B-
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