The Tree of Life (2011)

1 07 2011

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to adequately discuss Terrence Malick’s latest movie without feeling like one is missing something. To end the mystery immediately, this is a great movie, but it ultimately falls short of its aspirations. For a director with such a natural knack for making “deep and meaningful” movies, I can’t help but find a lot of this forced. Don’t get me wrong, from a strictly cinematic point of view, Tree of Life is even a step up from the revolutionary style of The New World but it seems that Malick has gone a little too far in the direction of opaqueness. There’s too much overt spiritual lingo and surprisingly, too much hokey symbolism.

When tasked of putting Malick’s cinematic style into words, it is extremely challenging since his vision is experienced more like a song, a language with its own rhythm and nuances. If one were to see this film before anything else by him, it might seem a little odd. The negligence of conventional storytelling, yes even by the standards of your usual arthouse-going crowd is, is definitely not going to earn Malick any new fans, but for the individuals who love his work (particularly his post-exile films) this is a brilliant movie. At the very least, it’s a continuation of his aesthetic. One could call it a maturation or mastering of his vision, but he already felt pretty in control with The Thin Red Line.

The selling point for many film geeks here is that it is more of Malick. His third film in over ten years doesn’t exactly sound prolific, but for a director that didn’t make so much as a sound for over twenty years, it can be read as something of a personal accomplishment. It’s difficult to see Malick actually topping himself after this since this particular movie seems like his most personal and deepest statement. Unfortunately, that’s where it gets kind of tough. I was turned off at first by the extended sequence of cell division and other avant-garde visuals, which seem just a little too long, but their not nearly as problematic as the symbolic mess the film becomes in the final twenty minutes.

While Malick’s previous two films were also on the longer side of things, they were also edited perfectly, at least by my standards, where as some editing could have helped out here. Sean Penn doesn’t really do anything wrong here, per se, but his presence is perplexing if not completely useless. It’s fine if Malick needed some more star power to sell the film (he seems to do this from time to time, John Travolta in The Thin Red Line?) but ultimately, Penn’s appearance in the end just seems really off-kilter. There’s something personal and endearing about the sequence, but they really drag on. After a certain point, enough is enough and it seems like the symbolism has been hammered home hard enough. I suppose Malick deserves credit for still making these scenes look remarkable, but the seemingly endless walk through the desert (which is suppose to be the afterlife, I suppose) really puts a damper on the experience and perhaps spoils what could have been a really emotional conclusion.

One can’t blame Malick too much for being ambitious, he always has been. Is it really any surprise that his film in which the entire life experience and the event of creation is explored that it doesn’t feel a little dry and pretentious at times? Even as a defender of the man and his films, I’d say it isn’t really. His films always balance on a very thin line (no pun intended) of being genuinely deep and moving and being overly-spiritual. This is certainly the issue here. It’s not Malick’s best movie, but it is certainly Malick’s most Malick movie. In that sense, it the best and worst place to start with his films.



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