by Ryan Hill
Filmmaker Terrence Malick has had one of the stranger film careers in Hollywood history. His first two films, 1973’s “Badlands,” and 1978’s “Days of Heaven” were hailed by critics as minor masterpieces. He then disappeared from the film industry until 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” which was hailed as the return of one of filmmaking’s geniuses.
Then came Malick’s “The New World,” which was equal parts hypnotic and frustrating. Malick’s latest, “The Tree of Life,” upholds Malick’s reputation as a visual mastermind, but also begs the question of whether he’s transformed from genius to mad genius.
Michael Cimino was considered a genius after “The Deer Hunter.” He then made “Heaven’s Gate” and bankrupted a studio. This film won’t bankrupt anybody, but it’s about as big a disaster for Malick on a professional level.
The film, which is so ambiguous it’s almost impossible to figure out the plot, seems to center on Sean Penn reminiscing on his boyhood days with his two brothers as they grow up in early ’60s Texas under the strict hand of their father, played by Brad Pitt. Oh, and that portion of the film is intermixed with weird images of the Big Bang and dinosaurs.
“The Tree of Life” does try to tackle some very lofty ideas about the existence of God, and the battle between nature and glory, basically the themes Malick has explored his entire career, only this time with so little clarity that only two of the characters actually have names. The film is so sparse that there are maybe 30 lines of spoken dialogue. Even Sean Penn, who gets second billing behind Pitt, has maybe three lines in the entire movie.
The film is also interspersed with Malick’s trademark nature shots, making it seem at times Malick missed his true calling as a photographer for National Geographic.
As frustrating, slow and ambiguous as “The Tree of Life” is, it will be popular with the art house crowd, as well as the critics that people consider to be “the ones who only like bad movies.” For the mainstream movie-going crowd, there is not enough mind-altering drugs that could be taken to help make “The Tree of Life” make a lick of sense.
Some people may be drawn by the star power of Pitt and Penn, but don’t let that fool you. This film feels like equal parts middle school nature film and History Channel prehistoric recreation footage mixed with a whole lot of the camera following children playing and being raised by a stern father. And, with a running time of more than 2 hours, most of “The Tree of Life” feels like pulling teeth. Hopefully this will be the wakeup call Malick needs to get back to serious filmmaking.
Grade: 1.5/4 stars