DVD Release Date: October 11, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: May 27, 2011 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material)
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Run Time: 138 min.
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Cole Cockburn, Will Wallace

Whether it’s Renoir or Radiohead, the merits of more abstract creations depend largely on who’s looking or listening.        

The same is certainly true of Terrence Malick’s (The New World) ambitious new film, The Tree of Life. While it claimed the festival’s biggest prize at Cannes recently, it still received a decidedly mixed reaction—namely, cheers and boos—from the screening audience.

And given many mainstream moviegoers’ general intolerance for the avant-garde, save for the occasional art house breakthrough like last year’s Black Swan, that same love-it-or-hate-it sensibility will surely apply.

For some, watching The Tree of Life will be a rare opportunity to marvel at an artist’s astute eye for detail, while others will appreciate the greater existential ruminations on the origins of life, the inherent sinfulness of man and the future implications of tragedy that befalls a family. What’s revelatory for some, however, will be downright exhausting (and even bordering on pretentious) for another equally passionate collective, considering The Tree of Life lacks any discernable storyline to complement all those beautiful images.

No doubt about it, if one possesses the patience to sit through all 138 minutes, The Tree of Life is ripe with opportunities for post-movie conversation. In fact, debating “what it all means” is probably an exercise that many current film students are tackling with abandon. But as much as this particular critic wanted to get all swept up in Malick’s truly opulent display, it’s still impossible to shake the feeling of occasionally being duped by The Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome. 

As much as I wanted to agree with many of my peers and call it “deep,” “important” and “the best film of 2011,” The Tree of Life was more of a mixed bag of beauty and boredom for me. While Malick’s wildly impressionist approach is brave, particularly in the age of insipid sequels and recycled storylines, The Tree of Life still lacks connection since Malick practically severs any ties with anything resembling a narrative. With little in the way of actual character development, let alone a cohesive plot, all those lush landscapes and whispery, contemplative voiceovers still lack context.

The film begins by introducing us to the O’Briens (Brad Pitt, Megamind, and big-screen newbie Jessica Chastain), a married couple who’s just received news of their teenage son’s death. As expected, their grief is palpable, and the lack of dialogue only seems to underscore their anguish. Just as this scene effectively sets the tone for the next two-plus hours, the perspective abruptly shifts to the dramatic birth of the universe.  While juxtaposing life and death isn’t exactly new, the timing of the silent, self-contained sequence is still a curious choice.

After witnessing what creation may have looked like, including the parting of land and sea, the springing forth of flowers and foliage and the era when dinosaurs freely roamed the earth, the story then fast forwards to the 1950s, where we’re re-introduced to the O’Briens and their three sons in much happier circumstances.

A middle class family living in the suburbs of Waco, Texas, we're treated to what’s essentially a lengthy professional home movie that documents everything from how Mom and Dad often see the world differently (the movie describes it as the path of grace vs. the path of nature) to how quickly children can lose their innocence to the everyday joys and struggles that inevitably come with day-to-day living.

Proving he’s an equal opportunity time-jumper, Malick eventually leads us to the future, where we catch up with one of the O’Brien sons, Jack, who’s now a grumpy old man played by Sean Penn (Fair Game). Clearly dissatisfied with what his life has become, we see Jack daydreaming and wondering where it all went wrong from his glassy corporate office in downtown Houston. Note: Jack rarely does anything but pace back and forth and look perpetually annoyed, certainly one of Penn’s less complicated roles.

Now if you find yourself wondering how all these pieces possibly fit together, trust me, you’re not alone. While I’m all for movies that actually give the viewer a little credit for figuring things out on his/her own, there’s definitely something to be said for maintaining a little structure in the process. That criticism aside, one still can’t help admiring Malick’s inventive spirit and passion for the subject matter that’s been in the works for years now.

But at the end of the day, is Malick’s abstract approach actually art? Or even a worthwhile experience? Well, like evaluating Van Gogh’s “Field with Poppies” or Monet’s “Lady with a Parasol”, the beauty (or lack thereof) is entirely in the eyes of the beholder.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Some social drinking, plus a few shots of the town drunks.
  • Language/Profanity: A single use of “da--” and “he--.”
  • Sex/Nudity: Childbirth is shown, although not graphically so. A young boy looks through his mother’s lingerie drawer.
  • Violence: One brother injures another with a BB gun. Given his own dissatisfaction with his life, Mr. O’Brien often lashes out at his son and sometimes out of anger, he handles him (and his own wife) rather roughly. We also see the accidental death of a child, due to drowning. There’s also discussion of the death of the O’Brien’s teenage son.
     

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.