May 31, 2011

MOVIES: The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011)

The Tree of Life is the first Terence Malick film I've seen, and I don't think I need to see another. This is an insufferably pretentious, artsy-for-artsy's-sake bore.

The setting (mostly) is Waco in the sixties, where Jack (Hunter McCracken) is the oldest of three sons. We view his childhood in a series of impressionistic moments; there's no real plot to speak of, just scenes from a childhood. We see enough to understand that Jack's father (Brad Pitt) is generally a loving man, but somewhat on the cold and withdrawn side, and given to the occasional outburst of rage. (Remind you of anyone? Say, in the Old Testament deity department? Hold that thought...) Mother (Jessica Chastain) is an ethereal presence -- in one brief shot, we see her literally floating on air in the backyard -- who either can't or won't do anything to protect her children from her husband's mood swings.

There are a few brief scenes set in the present, in which we see the adult Jack (Sean Penn) working in a skyscraper in (I think) Dallas; they amount to even less in terms of story than the Waco scenes do. And any time it looks as if a storyline or an actual plot might rear its ugly head, Malick cuts away for no obvious reason to a beautifully composed shot of a tree. Or a sunflower. Or a volcano. Or, in one sequence of nearly 15 minutes, a recapitulation of the history of the cosmos from the big bang through the extinction of the dinosaurs, ending with a shot of Jack's birth.

The movie is, I suppose, meant to be the story of Jack's fall from grace and innocence, his gradual discovery that his father (and by fairly explicit implication, Our Father), loving though he may be, is also capable of being both a pissed-off bastard and painfully apathetic about his life.

The movie opens with a quote from the book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?," which is God's response when Job dares to ask why he has been so mightily cursed. Of all God's appearances in the Bible, this is surely his biggest moment of douchebaggery, and if there's any point to The Tree of Life, I think Malick is telling us that if we've ever expected anything more from God, then we are fools, just as surely as Job was to think that his loyalty would be rewarded.

But the whole thing is so sluggish and self-important. There's very little dialogue; instead, we watch scenes while one of the actors speaks (always in very hushed tones) semi-random lines, apparently addressed to God: "Are you watching me?" "Please help me." "What have I done?" And then at the end, everyone (including both versions of Jack) is suddenly walking aimlessly on the beach, exchanging ostensibly meaningful glances that don't actually mean anything, which makes them the perfect way to end this silly waste of time.

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