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‘The Tree of Life’: utterly lifeless

Jack (Hunter McCracken, right) lacks the patience to pull weeds and tend a garden in the exacting manner demanded by his overbearing, short-tempered father (Brad Pitt), who invariably takes the boy’s “failings” as a personal slight. Courtesy photo

By
June 3, 2011 |

‘The Tree of Life’

No stars

Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Fiona Shaw

Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity

At one point during writer/director Terrence Malick’s unforgivably tedious slog of a movie, Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien — while listening to a favorite piece of classical music, and no doubt wanting to comment upon the elusive search for perfection — explains that the composer recorded it 65 times … and still wasn’t satisfied.

A dangerous bit of dialogue, to insert into this dull, dreary and disjointed mess.

At my most generous, I might imagine that Malick intends his film to be more tone poem than typical narrative: more mood piece than conventional drama.

But I’m not inclined to be generous. The notoriously fussy Malick filmed this yawner three years ago, then spent the intervening time fine-tuning the footage in the editing bay.

He should have fine-tuned further.

“The Tree of Life” isn’t just bad; it’s laughably, crushingly awful. Unwatchable. Dull beyond description. Incomprehensible. Self-indulgently ridiculous.

Having said that, I’ve no doubt this film will speak to New Agers who love dissecting every last syllable of every last word in overly pompous poetry. Or, to put it another way, Malick’s approach will be adored by those who found the “star gate” sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey” to be rich with theological grace.

As opposed to the rest of us, who kept checking our watches and wondering when Stanley Kubrick would get on with it, fercryinoutloud.

Malick shares Kubrick’s desire to make every frame so gorgeous that it could be extracted, mounted and hung in a museum; in fairness, yes, the cinematography and composition are that gorgeous, often that powerful. But if I want to look at paintings, I visit a museum; motion pictures are so named because, well, they’re supposed to move.

Malick’s entire film is a discourse on the (supposedly) warring elements of nature and grace, as they affect a growing child. Nature is represented by a rigidly authoritarian father who frequently succumbs to flashes of rage; grace is delivered by a gentle, loving mother who struggles to smooth over the damage wrought by her hot-tempered husband.

I suppose.

The bulk of “Tree of Life” takes place in the 1950s, in small-town Texas, where Mr. O’Brien and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) are raising three rambunctious sons: Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).

We never get the adults’ first names. It’s that kind of movie.

Jack — the eldest, and more or less the focus of this unfocused story — is about to leave adolescence behind, and he’s not transitioning well. With very little prodding, he could devolve into a truly bad seed.

Fair enough, and a reasonable entry point for a potentially compelling story. But Malick isn’t content to allow this drama to unfold in a manner that feels even the slightest bit credible or realistic; everything — dialogue, mannerisms, scene compositions — is framed and staged in the same hyper-realistic manner that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki brings to each image.

These people never talk to each other; they declaim. Everybody’s body language is stiff and clumsy: intentionally so. Pitt, Chastain and the three boys are posed in each shot, like any other piece of background scenery.

Their behavior is punctuated by long, lingering glances and breathy non-sequiturs. We frequently wander through the woods that surround this community, often accompanied by laughably obtuse voice-over narration, invariably sounding like bad junior high school poetry: “Unless you love … your life will flash by,” or “Guide us … to the end of time.”

While the process of watching this film may feel like it extends to the end of time, Malick’s actually more concerned with the beginning of time … which we’re privileged to witness, in a jaw-droppingly bizarre first chapter that takes half an hour from the big bang to the arrival of Earthian atmosphere, exploding volcanoes and, yes, even dinosaurs.

This rather distracting — and protracted — interlude occurs because of a crisis: As we see in a prologue, one of the O’Brien boys has just been killed. Somehow. Perhaps via military service, but we never learn the details. We also never learn which son.

For that matter, we don’t immediately realize that this boy died not back in the 1950s, but later, when he was 19. The grief-stricken Mrs. O’Brien quietly questions God’s purpose, with plenty of the aforementioned voice-over poetic statements, and wanderings in the woods, and then we’re off to the origin of life, the universe and everything.

Eventually, via another timeline, we meet the grown-up Jack: an apparently lost soul in our modern world. As now played by Sean Penn, Jack is prone to nothing but morose expressions. We eventually follow him on long excursions through the blasted landscapes of Death Valley and Utah’s Goblin Valley, sometimes accompanied by a woman (his wife?). Don’t ask me how Jack gets there, or why he’s there; answers there are none.

The final sequence, a sort of discourse on the afterlife, arrives as even more of an erratic, nonsensical surprise. Actually, no, that’s not true; by this point, I was beyond surprise. Everything was simply par for the course: more of Malick’s stream-of-consciousness meanderings.

It’s not that Malick lacks talent: far from it. Isolated moments of this film are vibrant and captivating. Lubezki’s ground-level camera follows the three boys and several friends during the horseplay of a sticky Texas afternoon, and the barely restrained boyish energy positively crackles.

Later, these same boys cavort in the mist bellowing from a passing truck that sprays mosquito-killing DDT throughout the neighborhood: an arresting image that Malick makes even more powerful by muting all background sounds.

The complex nature of young Jack’s relationship with his father is captured marvelously in one scene, as the boy watches his father play the organ during a church service.

But such moments are few and far between, and by no means sufficient to compensate for the hilariously self-indulgent twaddle that occurs most of the time … invariably in slow motion, with somebody’s face framed in tight-tight-tight close-up. (I now know the location of every freckle on Chastain’s appropriately angelic face.)

We never get into the hearts or minds of these characters; Malick isn’t a director who encourages his actors to actually emote. Pitt’s explosions of fury are random, apparently resulting from Mr. O’Brien’s unhappiness at work. Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien remains a beatific cipher.

Penn’s eternal frowns — his sole stab at “characterization” — are unintentionally hilarious; one imagines he’s having trouble digesting a bad breakfast burrito.

Rarely have so many labored so long, to produce so little.

I never, ever imagined that Malick could have made a film even more boring than “The Thin Red Line.”

I was wrong.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

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