Terrence Malick stole my money and my afternoon. Tree of Life is 138 minutes of blow hard preposterousness that manages to come off as both arrogant and undecided. The story—if we’re applying that word generously—centers on a Texas family in the 1950s, the mother and father of which offer sharply contrasting philosophies on life. These yin and yang teachings seem to tear at their oldest son both in the fifties and as he looks back as an adult. And…uh…There’s a big bang, evolution, dinosaurs, a comet, humanity, and a beach. Yeah. I think that’s about it.
The movie isn’t without successes. The cinematography is unequaled. Even the (far too) lengthy CGI sequences are hard to turn away from. Brad Pitt, as the incorrigible and frequently belligerent father, is magnetic. He, his counterpart Jennifer Chastain, and the oldest son—played as a boy by Hunter McCracken—all turn in performances with great emotional depth and nuance. McCracken was especially impressive, encapsulating the constantly undulating emotions of youth. The problem is that these performances are cut short by Malick’s seemingly endless masturbation. He keeps each character at arm’s length, never allowing the viewer to empathize and barely to relate. The viewer is given five minutes of a nail-bitingly tense dinner table scene followed up by fifteen minutes of pretty pictures without meaning and wistful narration. The story could be made up of a dozen of these scenes and it would’ve been impossible to take your eyes of the screen. Instead it was hard to keep your eyes open.
For all its moments of strength and entertainment, the film still flops. It’s an attempt at something grandiose, enlightening, and divine but lacks the backbone to take a stand regarding what it all truly is or what any of it might mean. Malick’s film buckles under its own weight. The average viewer won’t be able to carve a true story out of the film’s shapeless narrative. “Did he die? Who was talking? What was that? Why are they…” The questions will proliferate as the film unfolds. Don’t bother trying to answer them, Malick doesn’t. Tree of Life is a visual triumph but an abject failure in most other senses. It poses questions that it never answers, sets up conflicts without resolutions, and starts telling stories without endings. If Malick intended to parallel the seemingly random nature and frustration of life itself then I guess he was more successful than I’ve given him credit for. If his goal was to entertain an audience, then he fell abhorrently short. As a preacher informs us in the film, misfortune falls on the just and unjust alike. And if you spend money to go see Terrence Malick pleasure himself in a theatre, then it looks like misfortune fell on you too.