Friday, June 24, 2011

If anyone out there sees Terrence Malick, punch him in the face for me...

Or Sean Penn. Or even, beloved Brad Pitt; would you at least give Brad a little slap on the head for me? Because that's the minimum for what I feel I'm owed after spending 2 hrs 18 min enduring The Tree Of Life. Jeezus. Where should I start with this irksome, self-indulgent, weirdo piece of crap?
Okay, let's start with its writer/director Terrence Malick. I like a lot of his films. Badlands is great, and Days of Heaven is in my top 10 movies of all time. I even liked The New World! In other words, for years I have been a Malick apologist, and have defended his weirdo artistic vision. But damn if I can do it now for Tree of Life.
You guys, it's so bad. It's confusing, with a non-linear narrative that makes no sense. It's too silent in places. Sean Penn is annoying. This film is distractingly abstract and so self-indulgent that it makes me angry.
It all started out so promising. Well sort of. For months and months I had seen the posters and the trailers for the movie. Half of me was filled with giddy anticipation - Brad Pitt and Terrence Malick together at last! - the other half was filled with dread because the trailer seemed a little wacky. But I held on to hope. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes while it polarized the Cannes audience (standing ovation and booing?). It garnered a 87% on Rotten Tomatoes which is the 2nd highest rating for any Malick film on the site (just under Days of Heaven) which I saw as a good sign. 
Critics seemed to love it. David Edelstein gave a really interesting and positive review of it for NPR. Then came  Roger Ebert's review where he glowed about it, comparing it to the brillance and boldness of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I almost always agree with Ebert; if he could love it so much then I was bound to. Right? Wrong. So wrong.
The movie begins with someone whispering quotes from the Book of Job in the bible. There's a lot of whispering in this film; characters whisper questions like "how can I get close to you?" and "where were you when I laid the foundation..." , that are I guess directed towards God? Or no, maybe God is speaking through this character to another character? I don't know. All I do know is that the first 15 minutes of this movie starts out sort of promising, although a little confusing right out of the gate with Malick jumping all over time as we first see little kids playing in late 50s Texas with their parents, then cut to the mother some years later getting a telegram that her 19 yr old son has died. For a few minutes it seems like we might be going somewhere as the parents, played by Pitt and Jessica Chastain, are shown dealing with their grief. Then we cut to present day(?) where Sean Penn has bad dreams? We see Penn in a big glass skyscraper where he rides the glass elevator a lot and is having trouble concentrating at his work as an architect(?) because maybe his mother just died? Because he and his wife/girlfriend who shares his ultra modern house are both wearing black suits like they're going to a funeral and although she never says a word, she's giving him a look that is annoyed yet tinged with sadness and sympathy. Or something. Keep in mind, throughout these first few scenes there's not really any dialog and almost no exposition, so you have to guess a lot.
And then Malick loses his ever-lovin' gawdamm mind. For the next 20 minutes, Malick shares his vision of Creation. There's a dramatization of the Big Bang, and the beginnings of life on Earth. Volcanoes erupt; microbes form and squiggle around; oceans crash. Then come the DINOSAURS. Yes, you read that correctly. All through this absurdity there's mostly classical music blaring, occasionally broken up by a character's voice asking various goofy existential questions, or complete silence. It was at this point that I thought I might be having a stroke because I couldn't compute the things displaying before me on the screen. But I then looked around at my friend Cathie and several other theater patrons and realized we were all watching the same thing. The couple behind us took off, muttering that they were going to demand their money back, but at that point I was almost more fascinated to see what other craziness was in store rather than caring about when the story would get back on track.
But a "story" never really emerged. After all of the cosmos/creation crap we're dropped straight into the birth of Jack O'Brien in 1950s Waco, TX. We're shown him growing up through early adolescence struggling with his father and being a normal shitty pre-teen, as his mother gives birth to two more brothers (whose names we never know I don't think). In fact, Jack O'Brien is the only full name we ever hear. Pitt and Chastain are Mother and Father, or Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien is shown to be a sad, ambitious, and stern man who sees himself as a failed musician and inventor, always looking to strike it rich. He's a brutal disiplinarian with the 3 boys, and has weird rules about respect and what the kids (and his wife) should do or say. Every so often the film jumps from 1950s Waco to modern day Sean Penn as "adult Jack". Sean Penn at work and on his dumb elevator; Sean Penn lighting votives in his ultra modern house; Sean Penn at the beach, walking in the desert, walking over rocks, and seeing a bunch of dead(?) people, until finally he walks through a doorway and sees his whole family from back when they were in the 50s and is filled with a sense of peace? We are to assume that these jaunts are all in his brain. I don't know.
You may think that all of what I just wrote was way too spoilerish. It isn't. I don't think I'm conveying how weird and vacant this movie is. NOTHING HAPPENS in it. There is no story to thread any of the scenes together. I could throw out at you a bunch of words - BLUE, CAR, ROCKY, SHOE, EYEBROW, DOG, UNDERPANTS; adjectives and nouns chosen at random, and it would make just as much sense as what I've shared in the previous paragraphs.
We are led to believe that the middle O'brien child, the blondest one who has an affinity for music and plays guitar, is the one that dies. But maybe it was the youngest one who doesn't have one single line in the whole film. Was the dead brother sick? Was it an accident? Was it Vietnam (the time period would be right)? If so, why was it just a regular Western Union guy delivering the news without any gravitas and not someone from the armed forces? Does Jack feel responsible for his brother's death? He seems to because he's haunted by it lo those many years later. But nothing is ever said. There are about 160 other questions that are never answered either. But it gives me a headache to think about them.
This movie experience has shaken me to my core. I was led astray by people I trusted and I'm upset about it. But I'm telling myself that if I hadn't seen The Tree of Life, I wouldn't have been able to rant about it here and warn all of you good people.
Seriously Malick, you not only owe me the $10 for the ticket, but I get to land one good punch somewhere on your body.

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