Most Boringest Tree Ever

The Tree of Life: 4/10

Brandon Haffner

To tell it straight, “The Tree of Life” is a pretentious and overly ambitious mess.  I generally admire Terrance Malick’s approach: intimate, imagistic, careful and sparse dialogue.  But “The Tree of Life” feels like a collection of all the weak points of his other films.  “The Thin Red Line” fed us too much obvious narration.  “The New World” was a bit too slow.  “Badlands” was overconfident, too quiet.

“The Tree of Life” is all of these things, plus possesses an unwatchable quality that’s hard to describe.  It’s like we’re watching that one film studies grad student’s project, you know, the kid who writes papers 30 pages longer than the requirement, and whose movie is 3 hours long instead of the required half-hour.

The film centers on a family in Texas, in particular three young brothers who learn to deal with a borderline abusive father.  Brad Pitt plays that father as a very traditional 50s patriarch, a stern and unforgiving man who believes that discipline is the best tool for growth.  We learn in a forward flash that the oldest son we’re watching, the one who suffers the brunt of the father’s “discipline,” dies at the age of 19 while serving in the military.

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Suddenly the film transports us to outer space!  We’re listening to grandiose operatic music and we’re traveling through stars and planets!  A bang!  We find Earth.  We’re in the ocean, following jellyfish.  Then there’s a fish!  Then a lizard on the land!  Then dinosaurs!  We’re back in outer space.  Asteroid hits the Earth.  You can see where this is going.

Eventually we come back to the suburbs to our familiar house.  During the entire movie the kids stay around the 8-12 age range.  Yet because of the reveal in the first scene, we know that the eldest dies in the future.  Why we don’t get more scenes in that future is anyone’s guess.  While in a workshop class with Scott Russell Sanders, I wrote an essay about my brothers when we were younger.  It alternated between past and present, and ended in the past.  Scott said never do this.  I disagreed at the time but agree completely now; there was a missing resolution, my audience had a hard time missing the point.

That’s the greatest flaw of “The Tree of Life.”  I sense great effort from everyone— Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, the other actors, the editor, art director, cinematographer, everyone— but what do we gain?  The film is such an odd mix of subtle and grand that the real meat of the film is lost somewhere in between.  Save for a couple of decent scenes between father and son, there’s no tension to be found.  Is it asking too much of an artsy fartsy guy like Malick to include a little bit of tension to sustain my interest?  I am, after all, dedicating two hours of my life to watch a screen, and have spent a valuable Netflix rental to send the DVD to my house.

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