This Month's Review: 'The Tree of Life.' Have you ever left a movie theatre before the film had ended? I can honestly say that I never have. (Well, except for that one time I went to see 'Monster's Ball' in London and the cinema's fire alarm went off ten minutes before the end, but that's another story...) I've gotten pretty good at predicting what movies I'll like these days, so it's rare that I find myself shocked by how awful a movie turns out to be. But on the rare occasions in the past that I have found myself watching something terrible, why didn't I just get up and leave? After giving this some thought I decided that there are two reasons. The first is that I don't want to feel as though my time and money has been wasted. This is not entirely logical, I know, since my money has already been spent, and by choosing to stay I'm obviously wasting more time, not less – but there you go. The second reason is story. It almost doesn't matter how bad a movie happens to be, once I've devoted a certain amount of time to it I want to know how it ends – even if in the process I'm being bored completely out of my mind.
Which brings us to The Tree of Life. From acclaimed writer/director Terrence Malick, (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) The Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Milk) and Jessica Chastain (Stolen, Coriolanus). To try to describe the plot to you would be both pointless and misleading, since by any reasonable standard there is no plot. The Tree of Life begins with a middle-aged married couple learning of the death of their son. What follows is a truly epic exploration into the miracle of life and the grand scale of evolution, highlighting both their beauty and their complexity. From the grieving couple we are thrown back in time, all the way back to the birth of the universe, from where we begin a seemingly endless journey through the entire history of life on earth – from the first single cell organisms, to complex sea creatures, to the first appearance of amphibians on land, to the dinosaurs, mammals and finally, we humans. When at last we are returned to the grieving parents, we now see them several decades earlier, at the point when they begin to raise their three young sons. Much of the remainder of the film then consists of a long series of disjointed scenes through which we learn of their respective personalities, and how these in turn impact upon them as parents. The father ruling his family with strict detachment, the mother offering nothing but unconditional love – both leaving a deep impression upon the lives of their children.
The Tree of Life has been receiving rave reviews from many critics, and won the prestigious Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It is absolutely beautiful to look at, and highly original in its sheer scope and grandeur. It presents an unashamedly emotional portrait of life in all its beauty and wonder, exploring the themes of family, nature, religion, grief, and ultimately, the acceptance that all things must change. Unfortunately however, it is also boring, pretentious, self-indulgent nonsense. I can't recall ever checking the time so often during a movie, wanting to know when the damn thing would finally end – or ever before having silently cheered inside when at last it did, mercifully, reach its conclusion. For all its beauty, originality, and good intentions, at its core The Tree of Life is just unbearably boring – its 2 hour 20 minute running time felt at least twice that long.
The best way I can think of to explain to you what The Tree of Life is like is to say that you shouldn't really think of it as a movie in the conventional sense at all. It's more like one of those abstract films with no storyline you occasionally see exhibited in art galleries – the ones that you never get the point of and have no real interest in, but sit down to watch for five minutes anyway, just to give your feet a rest. But worse than being just long and boring, a great many of the film's scenes appear to have no purpose whatsoever. Even Sean Penn himself was recently quoted in the French newspaper Le Figaro saying that he was still trying to figure out what the hell his character in the film was supposed to be doing there. I admire Terrence Malick for having tried something so original and abstract, but original and abstract doesn't always equal good or meaningful. If not for the fact that I wanted to be able to write an informed review of the movie for BTSB I definitely would have walked out well before the ending for the first time in my life – not the least because there was simply no story there to keep me interested enough to stay, and in the end, that's probably all I really need to say regarding what I thought about The Tree of Life. My advice? Wait until it comes out on DVD. And then don't rent it.
BTSB's Rating : ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
After trashing The Tree of Life I wanted to give Terrence Malick a chance to redeem himself, so I decided to take a look at his 1998 war epic, The Thin Red Line. Based on James Jones' 1962 novel of the same name, The Thin Red Line tells the story of the U.S effort to halt the southward advance of the Japanese through the islands of the Pacific during World War II. It begins with Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) enjoying an idyllic existence among the natives of an island in the South Pacific, however we soon learn that he has gone AWOL, and before long he is captured by First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) and returned to his unit, which has been brought in to reinforce a recent invasion of Guadalcanal. Following their landing on the island, we witness Charlie Company progress unopposed through the jungle until they reach a fearsome Japanese machine gun bunker located on a strategically important ridge – the first of many such obstacles they will encounter as they attempt to gain control of the island, whilst battling rugged terrain, a heartless C.O (Nick Nolte) willing to sacrifice them all for the sake of the mission, and their own gnawing fear.
In many ways overshadowed by Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan that was released the same year, The Thin Red Line nevertheless attracted a great deal of critical acclaim, including 7 Academy Award nominations. Shot on location in northern Australia and the Solomon Islands, it contains some of the most beautiful cinematography I've ever seen in a film – the many jungle sequences in particular featuring extraordinary colour and contrasts of light and shadow, which perfectly highlight the beauty of the natural surroundings. Combined with a score from the legendary Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line is absolutely beautiful to both listen to and look at. The movie also features an all-star cast, which in addition to Caviezel, Penn and Nolte, includes Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, and in blink-or-you'll-miss-them cameo performances, George Clooney and John Travolta.
Where Malick falls down once again however is in the story, which whilst stronger than the non-existent plot of The Tree of Life, could still only be described as flimsy at best. Malick truly appears to have a deep disdain for plot, preferring instead to merely drift from scene to scene, and allow the camera to linger wherever he feels like for however long he feels it should be there. The result is a film of epic proportions – The Thin Red Line comes in at a whopping 2 hours 50 minutes, reportedly edited down from the original director's cut of over 5 hours. In its defense however, the movie does not feel exceptionally long, although it could definitely have stood to be at least another half-hour shorter. But for its length, its flimsy plot, and Malick's insistence on once again conveying the innermost thoughts of his characters through an annoyingly constant form of ethereal, whispered voiceover, The Thin Red Line could easily have stamped itself as a modern classic. Instead it falls a step or two short, however that is still enough to earn it the title of being a very good film, and well worth a look the next time you find yourself with a spare 3 hours on your hands.
BTSB's Rating : ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆