Is it profound or pretentious? Is it art or twaddle? Is it one of the cinematic events of the year or a pompous bore? The answer to all that is really “yes.” Which is to say that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is profound, pretentious, art, twaddle, a cinematic event and a pompous bore all packed into 138-overlong minutes. And, in its own way, it’s a must-see. Even the things that are “wrong” with it are worth seeing. I hate the term “self-indulgent,” simply because I think all art is self-indulgent to one degree or another, but it seems inescapable here. And yet, the fact that The Tree of Life is self-indulgent is essential to its very being, so I’m not really using the term pejoratively.
There is no point in trying to synopsize the film. It has a kind of narrative, but it’s the narrative of memory—and probably imperfect memory at that. The film has the idea of taking the viewer—not always in an orderly fashion—from the moment of the creation of the universe to a point of observing a Texas family (mostly at some point in the mid-1950s) that feels a lot like the filmmaker’s own memories of childhood, then all the way through what can be called, I suppose, The Meaning of it All, and then back into the infinity of the void. That’s a heady concept. When it works, it works brilliantly. When it doesn’t work, it fails quite spectacularly.
The trick is that I strongly suspect what works and what fails will differ from viewer to viewer. And there will be viewers who will quite simply hate The Tree of Life altogether. This has already happened at one theater in Connecticut at least. Patrons were so outraged by the film that the theater managers and staff found themselves on the receiving end of abusive complaints from angry customers. That not only seems excessive to me, it suggests something more than disatisfaction over a “bad” movie. It suggests that something about the film—not boredom or incoherence—deeply disturbed these patrons in ways they may not themselves be clear on.
I freely admit that many things in the film simply don’t work for me. The whole creation of the universe business doesn’t really come together as either breathtaking wonderment or dramatic event. It feels like an unwieldy combination of the “Star Ride” from Kubrick’s 2001 (1968)—minus the LSD-chrome—and the devolvement of Eddie Jessup to the moment of creation in Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) played backwards at slow speed. And it’s nowhere near as effective as either. The much-remarked-upon footage of dinosaurs didn’t do anything for me either, looking for all the world like something I might bump into on the Discovery Channel. Yet I don’t decry the inclusion of these things—partly because they’re essential to the continuum of Malick’s vision, and partly because I think Malick is entitled to his vision.
The film—for me—is on much firmer footing with its depiction of life in the 1950s. Is this because I can recall the time? Maybe. And I’ll certainly note that most of it feels authentic on a broad scale in ways that have nothing to do with specifics of Malick’s own memories. My own memories have nothing to do with siblings, a strict father or religion. Yet it felt right and—I think this is important—it never felt like a purely nostalgic wallow. Incomprehensible and unpleasant things happen—sometimes only as background or touches, sometimes as part of the story (such as the drowning scene brilliantly set to the opening of the Mahler First Symphony). This isn’t one of those “remember how great it was to grow up when” emails that seem to breed like rabbits. This is aware that childhood is not all safe, lazy summer days.
I could—if I had the room—go on about the film’s river and water imagery, the use of Smetana’s “The Moldau” on the soundtrack, the narrative experiments, the faux-Fellini moments etc., but the truth is that the only way you are ever going to get the feel of The Tree of Life is to see it for yourself. You may love it, you may hate it, but I doubt you will be indifferent to it. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements.