By Chris Nashawaty
October 07, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
Merie Wallace
  • Movie

Confused by The Tree of Life? Me Too.

The trippy opus is profound — and more than a little puzzling

At the risk of sounding like a philistine, I just couldn’t crack Terrence Malick’s latest cinematic tone poem, The Tree of Life (2011, PG-13, 2 hrs., 19 mins.). It turns out I’m not alone. After the film waltzed off with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, 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.” Amen, brother. The truth is, Malick’s always been a weaver of transcendent images. You could hang any frame from his five films over the past 38 years on the wall of a museum and it wouldn’t look out of place. But as a storyteller, he’s growing more and more idiosyncratic and inscrutable. The Tree of Life is mostly set in Texas in the ’50s, where Brad Pitt plays a tough-love father to three sons, one of whom grows up to be Sean Penn. Between those two bookends are a bunch of fetishistic shots of nature, whispered voice-overs appealing to God, and confounding sequences of CGI dinosaurs and the fiery origin of the cosmos. Added up, it makes 2001: A Space Odyssey look like Sister Act 2. Watching Malick’s movies wasn’t always this much work. His first film, 1973’s thrill-kill road movie Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, is a young-love-on-the-lam masterpiece. But with his follow-up, 1978’s Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as early-20th-century wheat harvesters, things started to jackknife into the abstract. Malick was evolving into a silent filmmaker, more interested in capturing the sky at dusk than the inner lives of his characters. After a two-decade hiatus, Malick returned with 1998’s impressionistic WWII movie The Thin Red Line, which turned James Jones’ vivid novel about Guadalcanal into a backdrop for philosophical navel-gazing, confused-looking actors, and staggering shots of tropical birds. Then 2005’s The New World pretty much did the same, except with Pocahontas in colonial Virginia. The Tree of Life has images that will haunt you and stay with you. Visually, it’s a quantum leap beyond anything Malick’s done. It’s just a shame that as far as storytelling goes, it’s such a maddening step backward.

The Tree of Life: C

Badlands: A

Days of Heaven: B

The Thin Red Line: B-

The New World: C

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 138 minutes
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