Saturday, September 10, 2011

Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life"

If you want to see this movie and don't want it to be spoiled, I'd recommend reading something else. I will probably ruin a few things in here, plot-wise, so be warned. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews on this one, but I was intrigued by the trailer:

I took the time today to sit down and watch it, knowing it was going to be a heavy two hours. No distractions, no breaking it up into small segments, just all the way through. The first hour or so is filled with a lot of incredible imagery. Imagine scenes from the documentary "Earth," but then juxtaposed with the growth of a family. What Malick does here is gorgeous in terms of playing up the idea of creation, both in a religious sense and a familial sense, but it's not exactly ground-breaking (see: the video posted at the end of the paragraph). Scenes of jellyfish and hammerheads swimming in the ocean, slow lava eruptions, solar flares and explosions projected at molasses-like speed; these are beautiful to watch, but do little to serve the story, which itself gets stronger as the movie goes on.

The last half of the movie focuses more finely on the family. Whereas the first half tries (and maybe even accomplishes?) to bring the viewer into an emotional connectivity with the characters, the second half shows more actual moments of the family's life and truly brings the viewer closer to the story and the people therein. What Malick does best in this half is show the slow fracturing of the familial bonds.

The father, played by a vacillating Brad Pitt, is both wise and loving father while also assuming the role of unbending/backbreaking disciplinarian. It is obvious that he adores his children and that he wants them to grow up to be decent men (all three are boys), but the moments where passes out punishment make one sympathize with the boys. My favorite scene (which was subsequently ruined by the monologue that immediately followed as it over-explained what Malick had just SHOWN us) shows the eldest son, very much in the height of his hatred for his father, finding his father working on the car in the yard. The car is jacked up several feet and Brad Pitt is deep beneath the machine. The eldest son looks at the car, looks at his father under it, then spends an agonizingly long time staring at the jack holding up the car. The son is having a serious internal debate about how much he wants to hurt his father. The scene is a heavy one.

The entire movie is a bit like opening up someone's memories and making them your own, if only for a little while. Rather than have scenes that lead to other scenes in a chronological way, the movie is cut and spliced through vignettes of the character's important moments. It's easy to turn these important moments into cliche or trite and overused nonsense, but Malick tweaks them enough to make them interesting and unique.

I can see the argument as to why people might find this a pretentious movie. There is very little dialogue (maybe a grand total of 20 minutes worth over the course of 2 1/4 hours) and the monologues sound like prayers being sent to the viewer. The problem with making this kind of movie is that it definitely won't appeal to a broader audience. It's entirely too experimental, too dream-like, and too interested in what it's trying to say to care about what other people think about it. So, pretentious? Yes. Worth watching a couple times? Absolutely.


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