Last week, I wrote a review of Terrence Malick’s latest star-studded art film, The Tree of Life. I didn’t like it. Actually, I kind of hated it. And for my sins, some ew.com commenters tarred me “a philistine”, “a dips—,” and “dense”. Which I’m totally fine with, by the way (he said, reaching for the Kleenex). Seriously, I knew when I wrote my review that I was in the minority on the film — its 84 percent Rotten Tomatoes positive rating proved that much. Still, watching Malick’s admitedly easy-on-the-eyes epic felt like the Emperor’s New Clothes to me. In the end, for me at least, its ravishing, museum-quality images added up to a big fat goose egg. Maybe you agree with me. Maybe you think I’m a dips—, too. Either way, let’s air this sucker out in the judgement-free confines of this week’s installment of the Contrarian Corner.
Let me start off by saying that I have nothing personally against Terrence Malick. I’m sure he’s a lovely fellow who could run intellectual circles around me and kick my butt at Trivial Pursuit. Plus, I loved his 1973 debut Badlands, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young thrill-kill couple on the lam. I was even mildly hypnotized by the sun-dappled amber waves of grain in his 1978 follow-up Days of Heaven. But over the span of his last three films (1998’s The Thin Red Line, 2005’s The New World, and now The Tree of Life), I’ve started to lose my patience with the reclusive director’s increasingly distancing and idiosyncratic narratives with their dreamy, whispered voiceovers appealing to God. Clearly, he’s making personal films that mean something deep to him. He’s artisanally hand-crafted a mere five films over the past 38 years. And the glacial pace of his output is proof that he thinks long and hard about what he says before he says it. But I’m starting to feel like what he’s saying is nothing more than an existential knock-knock joke that has no punchline. (And by the way, I’ve also started to lose patience with people patronizingly telling me that I just don’t get Malick’s films, like I’m some nose-picking simpleton like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons.) Seriously, I don’t think I’m asking too much for a movie to be more than just a collection of spiritual heaviosity and eye-candy imagery. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d also like if that film had some sort of narrative.
Apparently, I’m not alone. After The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, one of its stars, Sean Penn, told a French newspaper, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” See, even Sean Penn is stumped and he was in the damn thing!
For those who haven’t seen The Tree of Life yet, the movie is mostly set in Texas in the 1950s, where a stern, bull-necked Brad Pitt plays a tough-love father to three young sons. One of them grows up to be an architect played by Penn. Pitt’s wife is played by Jessica Chastain, who is a wonderful actress and who possesses the face of a silent-film actress. She manages to say more in silence than just about any movie star I can think of. Which is a good thing, because Malick’s movie is almost a silent movie. Seriously, the script must have been about eight pages long. What story there is is largely told through images and characters asking questions to God like, “Who are we to you?” Aside from the largely dialogue-free domestic drama that unspools, Malick connects the past and present with a series of hauntingly beautiful shots of nature. Volcanoes spewing lava. Hubble telescope-like shots of the cosmos. And, most infamously, a couple of CGI dinosaurs snapping at each other by a creek.
First things first: the nature shots. They look great, but I have no idea what they’re doing in this movie. Watching them, I couldn’t stop thinking, I wonder what Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are up to, right now? Maybe they’re having a smoke somewhere waiting for Malick to remember that he’s paying them to act in a movie. Can we get back to them? Honestly, if I wanted to watch spiraling galaxies and picturesque dwarf planets, I could’ve saved ten bucks and watched Nova on PBS. As for the dinosaurs… well, let’s put aside whatever point Malick’s trying to make about the compassionate nature of all of God’s creations or whatever he was trying to convey, and just say this: they’re ridiculous. I’ve seen better CGI in SyFy movies like Dinocroc Vs. Supergator. Remember how some people tuned out when it started raining frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia? This is like that times a million.
It’s entirely possible that years from now after watching The Tree of Life a seventh or eighth time, something will click inside my brain and I’ll finally “get it.” Until that day comes, though, I’m not buying what he’s selling.
So what do you think? You have an open invitation to vent in the Comments section below. Just remember, “dips—” has already been used.