Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Terrence Malick's Party at the Dawn of the Universe

Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is going to either enthrall or infuriate you, and for the sake of laying all my cards on the table, I'll say I fall into column B.  The divided reaction has been par for course since the Cannes premier, and in retrospect it should come as a shock to no one, since Malick's films have hardly played to the widest demographic.  And yet it never occurred to me that my reaction would be anything short of awe, which could be on account of the hype, but I think more likely is because his last film, The New World, I'd proudly count among my 50-or-so favorite films of all time.  Nevermind that of his other three films, I only love Badlands, I was blindly certain that Malick wouldn't let me down.

Thing is, I'm hardly bitter about it.  Frustrated expectations don't equate to poor cinema, not in my book, and hopefully not in yours either.  Tree of Life was somehow everything I thought it would be, and yet not at all how I thought it would feel.  My opening pronouncement wasn't a pan so much as an attempt to chisel away at the wall of hype surrounding the film (an example of such excesses: Landmark Century was showing the film on four screens, mid-afternoon).  Of course, considering the scope of the film, from 1950s family tragedy back to the dinosaurs and out to the cosmos, hype was unavoidable, and let's not forget that at the helm sat the most mythically reclusive of directors.  Terrence Malick's fifth feature film in nearly forty years, Tree of Life is both his most ambitious and most personal, which oddly may be the very two things keeping me at a distance.

Ambition works in funny ways.  It's something I'd never want to curtail, and I'd rather watch an over-zealous misfire than something safe and lazy any day, but it can get to a point when there's just too damn much on the plate.  It's unfair to measure this simply through the amount of existing footage, but a correlation often exists there, and it only amplifies as things drift further and further away from linear narratives.  Somehow knowing scenes of a film are infinitely re-arrangeable takes away from the experience for me, not unlike the disappointment of grappling with various directors cuts and alternate versions of films.  That's not to say great successes can't emerge in this fashion, but Tree of Life never quite justifies its prehistoric tangents and other flights of fancy.  Makes for some breathtaking imagery though.

The deeply personal story at the film's core has more substance to it, though how resonant that will be probably hinges largely on your own upbringing.  Aside from the common ground of growing up with two brothers, very little here felt familiar to me, and I'd like to think that was why it never struck a chord.  For better or for worse, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are more embodiments of ideas than actual characters - to no fault of the actors, who are marvelous - because as the narration spells out all to clearly for us, they symbolize the way of nature and the way of grace respectively.  It's a dynamic that actually comes through magnificently with little help from dialogue whatsoever, save for the largely unnecessary voice-over, but again, it makes everything exceedingly hard to map onto most familial relationships, which are just a shade more complex.

But caveats aside, Tree of Life was still a very fine film, and that it's so obviously a labor of love isn't lost on me.  That's why when carefully considering what films, if any, this may have a counterpart in, I arrived at one and one alone, made of another mythic director of minimal output: Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror.  Both are unabashedly personal journeys that we the viewer are asked to come along on, and while I get the sense that Malick, like Tarkovsky, got more out of his film than I did, it was still an expedition I was proud to come along on.  And with that, I hope I've found a way to sufficiently swing this review into the positive camp, because I really did like The Tree of Life, however miffed I may be that it didn't change my entire perception of cinema.  So, ladies and gentlemen, check your expectations at the front desk, but please, do give this film a chance.  I've got a feeling we'll be debating this one for some time.

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