Art Movie Divides Audience, Defies Description

Earlier this week, when I saw the very new, very ambitious, and very polarizing Terence Malick film, The Tree of Life, with a couple of friends, I did not know what to say, beyond “what just happened?” More than any film I’ve ever seen on the big screen, The Tree of Life defies not only explanation but even plain description. It is the kind of movie that your most pretentious friend would love, and marvel that you didn’t enjoy, while your friend who likes Transformers would likely fall asleep in the first half hour, or leave. It includes (so far as I can tell from reading a few reviews and seeing the film itself) the beginning of the universe, and its end; dinosaurs; dinosaurs being merciful; Brad Pitt being an emotionally abusive Southern father; lots of mysterious new age-y religious narration; and Sean Penn as a depressed modern day architect, on screen for about ten of the film’s 138 minutes.

Despite (or thanks to) the film’s expansive weirdness, it has received the kind of glowing reviews that are usually reserved for films with more than minimal dialogue, plot, and character development.  When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, some viewers gave it a standing ovation while others booed, and the film then won the festival’s highest prize, the Palm d’Or.  This seems to be the simplest encapsulation of the film and the kinds of responses that it provokes. Some of the country’s most prominent film critics have called it a masterpiece, but others have accused Malick and the film of a certain high-minded pretension that seems to sneer at the very idea that people might seek nothing beyond entertainment from the movies. But all critics, pundits, bloggers, and my friends agree that the movie is, as they say, visually stunning.

Let me attempt a few expository words, to give an idea of what viewers are in for when they sit down for Tree of Life, although the difficulty of doing so probably reveals more about the movie than whatever description I can come up with. The film opens with a wavering, pink, flame-like light, that appears to represent the early universe, or whatever preceded it. It is beautiful but inexplicable, like much of The Tree of Life. Then Brad Pitt and his redheaded wife, played by Jessica Chastain, get some very bad news, and we meet Sean Penn, their eldest son all grown up and tormented by the death of his brother from many years ago. Penn talks to his father on the phone, stares pensively at his very modernly appointed office and its parking lot, and then the film cuts to the big bang, complete with pseudo-religious narration by various members of the family, followed by a volcano-studded Earth and the origin of all life. Dinosaurs ensue (as promised). The film returns to the framing semi-plotted story, of the young and growing Pitt-Chastains. As the family’s three sons grow, more mystifying existential shots are intercut with regular family movie moments, and the exact chronological order of the different family scenes seems to be unimportant.  Boys act like boys, Pitt acts like an oppressive 1950’s patriarch, and Chastain acts as his comforting and graceful counterpart.

Consider yourself warned.

Although I’m afraid I couldn’t really explain more of the film’s plot even if I wanted to, I can assure you that it is always very pretty, and, if you let yourself stop waiting for something to happen, often mesmerically beautiful. The astrological sequences are breathtakingly strange, and the lights and colors of Malick’s imagined genesis are a sight to see, resembling abstract photography in motion more than a movie. But the more conventional domestic parts of the movie are shot no less carefully, and the boys’ growth is presented with a tender precision that movingly evokes an age when blades of grass can be something to stare at and study, and the rectangles of sunlight created by windowpanes can be a source of wonder.

When I walked out of the Sunshine theater on Houston St. after seeing The Tree of Life, I was more bemused than anything—kind of tickled by the film’s oddness and the tidal wave of breathless sentiment among critics and movie lovers. But over the next few days, nearly every time that I thought about the film, I’d recall a particularly gorgeous shot or puzzling moment, and I couldn’t help pondering the whole weird movie. I was honestly bored for parts of it, and some of the more heavy-handed existential bits were almost comical to me (dinosaur mercy?), but the movie stuck with me, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again, just probably not in theaters. With The Tree of Life, Malick aims about as high as a filmmaker can aim, and if the movie isn’t perfect, I can hardly imagine another film being even glancingly similar. Don’t expect to love it or even to understand it, and it just might take your breath away.

—Aaron Brown

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