Terrence Malick has been downright busy the last couple years. His first feature film, Badlands, was first released in 1973, and over the next 32 years the director made just three more films. Over the last two years and looking ahead to 2014, Malick will have made five films total. Talk about picking up the pace, huh? Picking up an Oscar nomination for The Thin Red Line, Malick recently picked up his second nomination, this one for 2012's The Tree of Life.
A straightforward plot description really wouldn't do this one justice, plain and simple. Even the more linear Malick stories/films like Days of Heaven or Thin Red Line basically refuse to be tied down by a straightforward description. Here's a general gist of it all....very general. A middle-aged man, Jack (Sean Penn), works in modern times in a major city as an architect. He one day gets word that one of his brothers has died, opening up wounds from a odd, turbulent childhood that still haunts him. In flashbacks, we see that childhood, a younger Jack (Hunter McCracken), growing up with his two brothers and his parents, his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). What did it all mean? What does it mean now in relation to his life?
Look, I get it. Terrence Malick doesn't make movies. He makes films. These aren't easily digested, popcorn movies you watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon. You've got to be primed, psyched for what you're about to watch. You've got to be in the right frame of mind. More than that? Don't even be slightly tired. If a nap is in your future, try the movie after your nap. A Malick movie is all about the style, the narration, the visual, the love and appreciation of nature and Earth and living and life. That sentence should do one of two things. One, encourage you and entice you into watching this film. Two, pack up your belongings and run for the hills. I have a love/hate relationship with Malick and often within his movies. One scene, one visual, one line of narration can be profound in its beauty (accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's worthy score), but that moment of brilliance can be lost in wave after wave of nauseous, overdone scenes that wallop you over the head in an attempt to be brilliant.
That ultimately is what prevented me from actually liking Malick's Tree of Life. I'd like to say that it is really trying here, really trying to say something profound, deep and all-meaning about life and growing up. Life can be equally beautiful and equal parts ugly in terms of personal relationships, emotions and interactions. It's finding that middle ground that makes it worthwhile. The word that came to mind over and over again while watching 'Life' was 'pretentious'. Then, reviews one after another I read used the description. Then, supporters of the movie said anyone who said it was pretentious was stupid, didn't get the meaning and should go back to watching Transformers. Very mature, huh? I debated even using the word itself because it is a pretty damning description in my mind. Maybe it is just trying too hard, but I keep coming back to it.
The biggest issue is that the message is....well, muddled? I don't know what it's trying to say. At 138 minutes, it is rather leisurely (to say the least) in its pacing. There is no linear story, but that in itself isn't a deal-breaker. The biggest focus is on Jack growing up as a child, specifically his teenage years, a turbulent time in any young man's life. What kind of person will he be? Kind and caring? More calculated and less emotional? Jack finds himself in a tug of war between his ultra-caring, sympathetic Mother (a solid part for Chastain) versus his ultra-tough, always teaching Father (a decent Pitt, nothing special). It really should be Mother and Father, the sense of an existential message doused in symbolism and a deeper meaning. Not just father and mother, but Father and Mother. Is that what Malick is going for? An all-meaning, all-told story of life and birth, ups and downs, living and learning, mistakes and victories? I really have no idea what he is going for in the least.
I don't know either if it is a movie that leaves so much up to the viewer/audience to make his own interpretation. I felt like it actually said very little, dragging on in a 138-minute film. It says a lot (or at least thinks so) while actually saying very little. As I write this review, it has now been a full week since my first viewing, and I still struggle to put into words what happened here. 'Life' is not a "Bad" movie. It strives to be something different, profound, maybe even something great. It is visually a stunner, something to sit back and appreciate like all of Malick's previous ventures and most likely his future films. But is that enough? If a movie strives to reach for the stars....and fails, how do you reward or penalize it? I can give credit where it's due, but on almost all levels I felt this one falls short. No story to speak of, narration that borders on the inane because it's trying to be profound, a 20-minute evolution sequence that shows the development of the universe, asides that may or may not be dreams/hallucinations/death/afterlife, all add up to a painful movie to watch at times.
As I've pointed out, I don't need a movie spelled out for me scene by scene, but a little help would have been appreciated. A little help, that's all. Even Penn in interviews said maybe Malick should have tweaked his film a little here and there, make it slightly more palatable to audiences. As is, I don't know what it's trying to say other than 1. Life can be tough. 2. Life is an ongoing, learning experience. 3. Life is full of constant tough decisions and 4. Appreciate it every minute because it's fleeting. An incredible disappointment to say the least.
The Tree of Life (2012): * 1/2 /****