The Tree of Life is an incredibly ambitious film, and breathtakingly gorgeous, featuring some absolutely beautiful cinematography. About 30 minutes into the film, I was ready to put it at the top of my 2011 list. But by the end of the viewing, all of that had changed.
The problem isn’t really that The Tree of Life fails to provide answers, but rather that it fails to even provide coherent questions. I have absolutely no problem with the gorgeous section of the film that showcases some incredible nature sequences, which is presumably supposed to stand in for the creation of the earth, or time, or what have you. In fact, I think Malick could have done one better and spread it equally throughout the running time of the film, interspersing it with the human narrative in chunks. The one place I think Malick does go off the rails with it, however, is the inclusion of the CGI dinosaurs. They don’t really add anything to the film, even if he’s attempting to create a parallel between the two dinosaurs and Jack and his brother. In fact, putting a sequence with CGI creatures in the middle of such a naturalistic film, no matter how well those dinosaurs have been rendered, is distracting and unnecessary and breaks the flow of poetic beauty with something false and forced. But this is a minor quibble.
What is a much larger failing of the film is the inability of director Malick to find a central focus. And yes, I get that he’s trying to portray these young boys as being raised in an environment with the harshness of natural selection and nature being represented by the father, and the grace of love and spirituality personified by the mother. I also get that Malick is trying to weave their story together with something bigger, and that there’s a quality of timelessness involved, of something mythic that transcends the individual. And I give him a lot of points for ambition. As has been stated by other reviewers, this is a film that shares both that ambition and a visual grandiosity with the like of Kubrick’s 2001, and that’s a very small peer group to be a part of. The difference is that while Kubrick incorporated a much larger spiritual mythology into his work, and some stunning symbolic visuals, he still managed to tell the tale of Dave and the HAL 9000. Malick, not so much.
First of all, there’s a point of confusion regarding the death of Jack’s brother. Most of the film is spent showing Jack and his brother growing up around the ages of 10 and 12. Early in the film, we witness a slightly older version of the parents, played throughout by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, receiving phone calls with the news of the younger brother’s death. Presumably, this happens during the war in Viet Nam, as the timing and ages would fit with this scenario, but that’s making assumptions. All we know for sure is that later in life, Jack, played by Sean Penn, tells his girlfriend or wife or whoever the woman is in his life, that his brother died when he was 19. Penn spends the early part of the film moping about his home and work, seemingly unable to process the death of his brother. But this doesn’t really make sense. Because if his brother died when he was 19, that means it would have happened when Jack was 21 or so. Which would have been decades ago for the character. Yet the malaise he’s in would seem to indicate that this event is something recent.
Okay, so let’s give Malick the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume he’s telling a story about the power of death and grief and loss, as well as the beauty of life and our struggle to find purpose. Let’s assume he’s exploring death as something that we never truly recover from, that always stays with us, and as something that is life-changing, a part of our own individual narratives, and a part of a larger cosmic narrative. All of this would be fine except that Malick doesn’t develop Jack as an adult at all, doesn’t define what it is, that he’s struggling through. Penn has probably less than 10 lines in the movie, and about 15 minutes of screen time. We see him wandering around metaphoric desert vistas and more literal cityscapes. Obviously he’s searching for some kind of meaning and peace, but it’s just not enough. Malick would have benefited from spending some time with Jack as an adult, to more clearly define his life and how his past has effected his relationships and the quality of his life. There is a lot that The Tree of Life is obviously aspiring to and aiming for, and you can see the target and witness Malick lining up the shot. But it’s a masterpiece that simply never coalesces.
And what of Jack’s past? For all of the naturalism, for all of the wonder and beauty personified growing up in a simpler time, this main narrative focus of the film doesn’t really go anywhere, either. We witness the father character, played by Pitt, being harsh and abusive with his son. It’s certainly representative of the time period, and the way many fathers treated their sons; while loving them, not knowing the best way to raise them or how to be nurturing and loving while still molding them into what they believed they needed to be independent, self-sufficient, and responsible adults. But it’s this reality, along with the love his mother gives him and the way he grows to distrust it, that creates a sea of confusion and conflicting emotions in Jack, taking him into the borders of self-doubt, self-hatred, and juvenile delinquency. Again, perhaps not much more than many other boys of that age at that time. And that’s part of the problem. It’s all so subtle and understated, and it never builds to anything substantial. We start to worry where Jack may be headed, but at a certain point, he seems to have a realization about his behavior. He seems to understand a need to find a balance, a peace with himself, and the beginnings of a search for his own maturity. And he seems to make an adjustment and pull back. But it’s all very vague, and so the film never truly delivers on anything. Rather than being left with something grand and universal being communicated, that’s perhaps simultaneously intimate and personal, we’re left scratching our heads wondering “wait, is that it?”
Malick seemingly hasn’t settled on what it is he’s trying to say, or what questions it is that he’s trying to ask. Considering how little the sequences with the adult Jack bring to the film, there’s really no reason for them to be included at all. And with or without those sequences, there still needs to be something more with the brothers growing up. In his desire for some kind of universal experience or truth, Malick has avoided the kind of specificity that would give his film actual purpose. And it’s a shame, because there is so much poetic beauty here, and he’s structured something that abounds with opportunities and possibilities, but then he lets them all slide through his fingertips like so many thousands of grains of sand. I’m all for experimental film, and in fact it’s the more experimental sections of The Tree of Life that are the most successful. I’ve seen plenty of negative reviews by people who have no patience for anything beyond the standard Hollywood spoon-feedings, who can’t abide anything that isn’t a conventional narrative. And while I’m not saying that Malick should be shoehorning his story into that format, I do believe that he needs to have something more specific he’s trying to communicate, no matter how abstract the telling. And once he himself is more specific about what that is, I think something with a stronger narrative, or alternately something even more experimental and less narrative-focused, would better serve him. But this current balance, or rather imbalance, finds there to be just enough narrative to be obviously not enough narrative; and while The Tree of Life is rife with ambition, it’s as equally an exercise in futility and pointlessness.