This may surprise you, but I am not a fan of Terrence Malick. That’s right, the guy who defends the artistic merits of Jackass does not enjoy impressionistic abstract art films. Yet, of the five Malick films I have now watched as part of my film education, I had the easiest time with the tree of life. That must mean it’s terrible, but it’s the one I liked.
It’s a screen saver really. You see lots of water ripples, bird flocks, mountains, light wisps, volcanic smoke and even outer space. At least it’s totally out there. Malick portrays The Big Bang and the formation of the planet. And, of course, more trees. Always with the trees.
The CGI is amusing. A sort of dinosaur-seal on the beach looks like the third part of the Sharktopus trilogy. Dinosaurs have been done on film before. Malick could have asked to borrow Spielberg’s, or at least Peter Jackson’s. But bad CGI in an art film, I think that’s kinda funny. Either way, the more abstract segment was my favorite part of the movie.
It begins with a family receiving terrible news about the death of a young son in the ‘50s. Mom (Jessica Chastain) and dad (Brad Pitt) mope around wallowing in sadness. One of their surviving sons, Jack, grows up to be Sean Penn and mopes through his modern day corporate life. That’s the intro!
After that we get the nature trip. Then, the actual story kicks in and it moves forward more than any other Malick film. It’s about the cycle of abuse as the kids discover their father is abusive and the eldest learns to act out in different violent ways. Sounds obvious, but it’s portrayed in that nonlinear way.
You can do the impressionistic version of the cycle of violence story. I don’t think you get any more out of that than just narrative storytelling, but it’s another form of artistic expression. The scenes look like old family movies, only in HD. The way the camera sways and bobs makes it look more interesting, even when all the actors have their back to you. Sometimes Mom will float in midair for no reason, because it’s art, man.
S the tree of life is planted in violence, and gives way to more violence from our evolutionary origins (the dinosaurs). Even as a civil society, if Dad’s insecure about his failures at work, he’ll lash out and create violent youth. Then it wraps up with a little more screen saver and some inner child/spirit vision whatever. It’s also about letting go. I get that too.
Grown-up Jack is barely in it so Sean Penn fans will get ripped off. I also think it’s funny that Pitt is supposed to be a ‘50s dad. You can put glasses on him and grease up his hair, but he still looks like a movie star. Maybe that’s how all kids see their dads.
All the Malick fans can yell at me for oversimplifying it and missing the point, but I actually like this one. These are all positive endorsements. I know Malick makes movies designed to be interpretive. I went with him on this one, and this is MY tree of life.