Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Tree of Life

Admittedly, I wasn't too enthusiastic about seeing Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life."  As evidence, I have had the Netflix DVD sitting in my backpack since November 25th. Part of the reason has been the wildly divergent reviews.  I mean, it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and yet, at the very same festival, people walked out of the theater during it's premiere! How do you reconcile that? Then you read things about a 17 minute interlude on the creation of the Earth and you remember how he fucked up "A Thin Red Line" and you don't find yourself too enthusiastic about sitting down through a 2 hr 19 minute pretentious art flick that even star Sean Penn criticized:
"I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read."
 Well, I have to quibble with Mr. Penn. "The Tree of Life" is amazing. Here's why:

  • Everyone in this movie acts the shit out of it. I know that sounds crass and sarcastic, but I'm serious. Hunter McCracken (great name - can't be real right?) was perfect.  Brad Pitt was amazing. Jessica Chastain, well...
  • If you don't fall in love with Jessica Chastain in this movie, you are not alive. Period. I want to marry her ten million times.
  • It's Brad Pitt's best performance since 12 Monkeys.  And it's better than his excellent performance in "Moneyball". Can you imagine Brad Pitt being an asshole? I couldn't (Come on - Brad Pitt is the best!). But I can now. It's a performance riddled with a self-loathing married to a personal ambition that thwarts his (rather sincere) intent to love and connect with his family. It's a remarkable performance.
  • No movie has ever captured the brother dynamic more lovingly and more sincerely.  I can't get over it. It's astounding. My God, I feel like I lived Jack's (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn's character's) life. You know, without the Daddy issues. But seriously, I've never seen a movie do sibling relationships like Malick does in "The Tree of Life". It's embarrassing enough that the second best example I can even think of is "Home Alone". "Rachel Getting Married" takes an admirable stab at sister relations but I couldn't tell you how honest or accurate that dynamic was.
  • Did you know "Tree of Life" made $54.3 million dollars? I'm glad it did, because it's nostalgic, and sad, and wonderful, but I always operated under the assumption that it was a colossal flop. Of course, maybe it only made money because of this theater's no refund policy - natch.
  • It's weird - I hated the narration in "The Thin Red Line" and yet I loved it here.  It just works sooo much better and its vital to the story and our understanding of the characters. And yet the words themselves just aren't that much different from "Red Line" to "Tree of Life".  I think you can transplant the narration from "Red Line" to "Tree of Life" and it would work just as well. The environment was just wrong. It's like Malick kept trying to shoehorn the concept into one of his flicks until it fit. Well, it does here.
  • I'm not sayin' anything new or original here, but there is very clearly a tribute to Kubrick in this movie. Not just stylistically (the "2001" parallels are fairly obvious), but musically as well. I think his reliance on classical music really sets it apart from previous Malick films.
  • Did I mention Jessica Chastain?
  • It is sad and mean, hopeful and life affirming.  It makes you feel, the way important movies should.
As per Mr. Penn's complaints, I wonder if he originally had a much larger role in the movie.  In the finished version, he has about (maybe) 3 1/2 minutes of screen time. Total. Why even bust the budget for Penn at that point? Hell you could have hired me to play that role...and at scale no less!

After watching "Tree of Life" I definitely need to put it at the top of my 2011's Best Movies list. For those of you curious, I'll list my top ten below. I'm leaving the last three spots empty because a) nothing else really deserves those spots and b) something that I haven't seen might snake its way in at some point. I'm thinking "War Horse", or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", or "Dragon Tattoo" or "Super Eight".
  1. Tree of Life
  2. Moneyball
  3. Bridesmaids
  4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
  5. X-Men: First Class
  6. Warrior
  7. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  8. ?
  9. ?
  10. ?


  1. I would have found Tree of Life more compelling if it started after the whole cosmic/evolutionary sequence and stopped before the return of Sean Penn. That would have made it a trim and effective family story. As it is, it gets unwieldy.

    Not sure how much of a stickler you are for counting things as 2011 that had limited releases in 2010 but have you seen Fish Tank, Another Year, Hanna, Made In Dagenham, Waste Land or Tiny Furniture? That's my top six that are on DVD/Instant.

  2. Unfortunately I canceled the "watch instantly" portion of my Netflix account, though Tiny Furniture is in my queue. I saw Hanna, and it was definitely good, but just not that re-watchable to me. I'd re-watch all of the movies on my list. I'm not really familiar with the others on your list. I would like to shout-out to the HBO documentary "Hot Coffee" though, which was eye-opening, even for me. It turns out the mass narrative about the old woman spilling coffee on her crotch was utterly bogus. On every front.
    As to your specific criticisms of Tree of Life, I actually pretty much agree. I hated the first 10 minutes because I wasn't familiar with the characters at that point and Sean Penn's "adult Jack" was entirely extraneous, even at the end of the movie. However, (***SPOILER ALERT***) I think it is fundamental to the movie to establish the death of the middle brother, and I think it's important to establish that fact at the beginning of the movie. It adds an important poignancy to every one of the brother's scenes. And I'm not sure how you carry that out without some kind of aged narrator.

  3. Yeah, Hot Coffee was really strong, probably my #2 documentary on the year. I got so furious watching it, pretty much just a constant stream of swearing in my head.

    It was interesting to hear your comparisons to Thin Red Line as I watched that a few months back and absolutely hated it. I wasn't big on The New World either so my expectations were quite low heading into Tree of Life. I do like Malick's first two films.

    Warrior is the only one from your list I haven't seen, mostly because I really don't like MMA/Boxing/etc, and Bridesmaids is the only one I didn't like.

  4. Having just watched "Margin Call" and "Midnight in Paris" I'm happy to slot them into #8 and #9 on my list.