It takes a lot for a movie to get me to turn it off or walk out midway through. I can’t actually remember the last time I did so, though I do recall strongly considering leaving in the middle of Transformers 2 as my brain was literally hurting from the sheer amount of stupid I was seeing.
I never imagined that the next movie I’d give up on would be a Best Picture nominee, but here we are. In my quest to see all the nominated films before this year’s Oscars on Sunday, I attempted to make my way through Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I just could not do it.
I feel defeated as a critic, and perhaps now I’ve realized that my tastes are too mainstream to be a “real” movie reviewer, the kind that fawns over pretentious films like The Tree of Life and thinks it deserves to be honored as one of the ten best movies of the year.
I already had a full dose of pretension with Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia in 2011, and while I deemed that too high concept for its own good, I got through it. At least a narrative existed in the film where it was somewhat possible to grasp the story and allegory you were witnessing.
But Tree of Life? It’s nonsense. Gorgeous nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. Terrence Malick attempts to weave a story about a man (Brad Pitt), his son (grown-up as Sean Penn), death and the meaning of life. It’s a collection of beautiful camera shots of picturesque scenes that have no distinct connection to each other in the least.
Furthermore, sporadically it’s spliced together with long stretches of random shots of nature. Space and all its planets, stars, nebulas and supernovas are featured, but then sometimes the film comes to earth and there’s actually a sequence featuring CGI dinosaurs. That was just about the last straw for me.
Just how incomprehensible is this movie? Despite starring in the film, even Sean Penn didn’t get it.
“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. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”
“What the f*** am I doing here?”
The problem is that a narrative simply doesn’t exist. These disconnected shots of Pitt, Penn and nature all are meant to show a complicated relationship between father and son, and the fragility of life. But Von Trier’s giant world-ending planet named “Melancholia” was a much more clear indicator of the message he was trying to get across, and there are no such obvious metaphors here.
The film could be an interesting art project I suppose. It’s like going to a modern art museum and seeing vibrant splashes of color on a page. “Oh that represents a woman and her struggle with post-partum depression,” the well dressed man next to you says. “Ah,” you say, but you don’t really get it. Art critics may swoon over it, but you walk away confused.
That’s how Tree of Life will seem to all but the most snobbish of moviegoers. Its nomination shows the Oscars gives less of a shit about what audiences will appreciate than ever, and is content being wrapped up in its own little bubble of pretentiousness. There are countless stories of patrons walking out of theaters during screenings, and some theaters even had to put warning signs up on their windows cautioning that the film is “out there” and not what you’d expect going in.
“Imagine this all makes sense, OK?”
I just don’t think there’s ever been a divide between critics and audiences to this degree before. Yes, I am generalizing based on my own experience and that of a few other stories I’ve heard about those who have seen film, but I just can’t imagine anyone I know making it through more of The Tree of Life than I did, and I only got about an hour into it. I’m sure there are many of you who will claim to know the secret of Malick’s intent, and that I’m just a rube who can’t appreciate cinematic art if it danced slowly in my face for three hours.
There’s no denying that from a cinematography perspective, The Tree of Life is beautiful. Its gorgeous space and nature sequences were designed by veteran VFX-er Douglas Trumbull, who was responsible for the same sort of sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and hasn’t returned to film since working on Blade Runner. And as beautiful as these scenes may be, a high budget screensaver is not a good film.
It’s just strange to be disconnected with something so beloved by industry professionals, and it almost makes me feel dumb. But Tree of Life beat me, and was too high concept for my puny little brain to enjoy or even sit through. I’m curious if any of you had a similar experience.