Far-reaching but poorly grounded
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 3, 2011
“The Tree of Life” is one of those movies that exists to taunt movie critics, daring them to reduce it to simple elements of plot, character and structure, loftily transcending quibbles with continuity and sense. Is Terrence Malick’s hotly anticipated movie the masterwork of the American cinema’s most gifted auteur or a self-indulgent, occasionally shockingly simplistic muddle of philosophical noodlings and overstated impressions?
The answer, of course, is Yes. “The Tree of Life” is both good and bad, great and fatally flawed, transporting and disappointingly literal. The sprawling story of a man’s quest to reconcile a contradictory parental legacy, “The Tree of Life” ties that search to more metaphysical questions having to do with God, Creation, Truth and Beauty. Amazingly, Malick makes these connections work, pungently evoking both suburban life in 1950s mid-America and the explosive beginnings of the universe with equal vividness and power.
It’s when he underlines, then italicizes for good measure, that his mistrust of his audience gets the better of him. At its best, “The Tree of Life” makes the viewer lean forward, eager to enter Malick’s own dreamy, poetic consciousness. At worst, it leads to the vague feeling that we’re listening to the meanderings of someone who’s not sure we’re smart enough to keep up.
That said, there are several reasons to see “The Tree of Life,” not the least of which is Brad Pitt, who here reminds filmgoers what a gifted actor he is in roles that call less for classically trained disquisitions than vibrant, telegraphed emotions. As a character named Mr. O’Brien, Pitt plays the patriarch of the 1950s family that lives in a leafy Texas suburb. A hard-jawed, embittered martinet, Mr. O’Brien brings up his three boys with a toxic combination of intimidation and commanding affection — mixed messages brought into even sharper relief by the healing, gentle presence of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). It’s revealing, and open to feminist interpretation, that her Titian-haired angel of mercy says virtually nothing in the course of “The Tree of Life,” instead expressing her angelic ethereality through gossamer smiles and beatific glances.
Sean Penn, looking decidedly pained, plays the oldest O’Brien son, Jack, as an adult, who announces the cardinal theme of “The Tree of Life” early in the film: “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.” (It’s clear who was who in his childhood.) While the adult Jack wanders a contemporary cityscape, his narration takes on the rhythms of a psalm, his questions “Who are we to you?” and “Answer me” leading to a bravura sequence of light, steam, smoke and fire that eventually gives way to shots of cells, jellyfish, a few dinosaurs and hammerhead sharks circling.
It’s an audacious sequence, full of wonder and verve, and Malick calibrates it perfectly to dovetail with the birth of Jack himself. Less a narrative than a series of sharp shards of memory, the next segment of “The Tree of Life” traces his life with Father, whose mercurial, fearsome force Jack fuses with God’s power at its most fickle and inscrutable. In vivid set pieces in the O’Brien home, Pitt, Chastain and a trio of gifted young actors bring to life the spontaneous joys and terrors that will surely ring true to anyone for whom innocent childhood mischief has swiftly curdled into a sense of irredeemable sin.
It’s in these intersections of the domestic and the cosmic that “The Tree of Life” thrums with the kind of profound simplicity Thornton Wilder captured in “Our Town.” And there’s unlikely but powerful harmony to be found between these scenes and the primordial ooze that came before (when one of the O’Brien kids thinks he has found a dinosaur bone, it’s possible to think “The Tree of Life” is simply the story of one plot of land).
But these fleeting, indelible moments are all but obliterated by the framing device featuring Penn, whose role here feels cursory, gratuitous and, finally, hopelessly artificial. What’s more, Malick and his team of five editors never make it clear precisely which son Penn is portraying, an unforced error that creates much unnecessary confusion.
The mismatch comes into most painful relief during “The Tree of Life’s” climactic sequence, during which the filmmaker’s attempt to reconcile Nature and Grace succumbs to pictorial cliches, heavenly choirs and Yoda-like pronouncements. As it happens, Malick brings things full circle, which gratifyingly returns the audience to the most potent ideas and emotions of “The Tree of Life.” That’s when it becomes clear that they haven’t watched a movie as much as come under a dizzyingly seductive spell.
Contains some thematic material.