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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Tree of Life (review)

Heaven Can Whine

Tree of life? Tree of sanctimonious mopey male egotism disguised as a search for meaning, more like. Or a search for God. Or for nostalgia. Or for innocence. Or for Mom. Or for something.

It could be anything, this search, as far as writer-director-moper Terrence Malick is concerned. Oh, it’s not moping, he’ll insist. It’s spiritual. It’s mystical. And the lack of, you know, attitude on anything here? That’s a feature, not a bug. Art: now with wishy-washyness! The universe is huge and eternal and unknowable, and who the hell are we to even begin to scratch the existential surface of it? Who the hell are we to try to make any sort of sense of it?
Well, it seems Malick is the hell who. At least in his own mind. He’s trying to begin to scratch the existential surface of the universe. If The Tree of Life can be said to be about anything, it’s about finding peace with the awesomeness of eternity. By telling us that it’s not possible to find peace with the awesomeness of eternity. And then it finds peace with the awesomeness of eternity when Sean Penn walks on a seagull-plagued beach with the ghosts/not-ghosts of his parents and his dead brother. It’s all good at this point, apparently. You know, restful and shit.

It’s down to nature versus grace, Malick tells us. This grace is a God thing, not a, you know, just plain non-faith-based grace thing here. It can’t be, because nature is selfish and miserable and not something a man should aspire to, while grace is, um, all about pretty pictures of, um, nature. And also about pretty pictures of frolicking in bucolic 1950s Texan suburban sunsets. But mostly about nature. Which is selfish and miserable. Just try to find grace when the universe has set itself up to pull grace away from you, like Lucy with the football. Grace is nature but nature is a bitch. So choose grace. Which is nature. Which is selfish and miserable.

Until it isn’t. Sometimes nature spares a dinosaur lying on a riverbank. No, really: Malick (The Thin Red Line) depicts this for us, like something out of Stanley Kubrick’s Jurassic Park. Or maybe it’s God what spares the dinosaur. But God doesn’t spare Sean Penn’s dead brother. God could have, maybe, except he’s busy making Jupiter, like, totally magnificent: superpretty picture there. God had time for the dinosaur, and for Jupiter, but for not Sean Penn’s brother. God is a mystery.

This God character here? Very ill-defined. Good or bad? Up or down? For real or not? Who knows? “That’s where God lives,” says Mom, pointing up at the clouds from Malick’s bucolic 1950s American suburban childhood. There is no evidence of this divine homestead.

This is comforting! This is upsetting! It’s art! It’s supposed to make you all wibbly-wobbly, okay?

Art? It takes a stand. In this case, it might boldly state that God is, or God isn’t. God is a bastard, or God is good. But this is art that is trying to be all things to all people. Tree of Life isn’t a film, isn’t a work of art. It’s a Rorschach test. It can be anything and so it means nothing.

It’s worse than that. All of Malick’s pretty pictures: they’re so tediously predictable. Waterfalls. Baby feet — so cute and so wondrous! Look: There’s a spiral. It’s math! It’s God! It’s God in the math of the universe!

Actually, you don’t even have to worry about any of this unless you’re a dude. Sean Penn (Milk, Persepolis) wanders in a spiritual desert of skyscrapers, and then — get this — he’s in an actual desert. He’s lost because his brother died way back when. And way back when is when Sean Penn had to make decisions about choosing grace over nature, like maybe not throwing rocks at innocent windows or shooting innocent frogs off on rockets. It’s a boy’s own existential despair. Girls don’t worry about such things. Girls are inherently good and graceful, it seems. Sean Penn’s anonymous wife picks flowers in support of Sean Penn’s misery. Sean Penn’s way-back-when Mom (Jessica Chastain) is ethereally beautiful and just a bit flighty… literally, in one moment: in the gauzy haze of nostalgia or maybe in the Möbius wormhole that makes this film loop in and around itself, she defies gravity to float around that 1950s suburban yard. (It’s an achingly beautiful image, divorced from everything happening around it. No, I mean, it actually is divorced from everything happening around it. It’s a pretty picture dropped into a montage of other pretty pictures.) Dad (Brad Pitt: Megamind, Inglourious Basterds) is a hard, bitter, capricious man, lost in the confusion of his own life — just as Sean Penn will be! Women stoically endure the angst of their husbands and sons in between washing their lovely slender feet in lawn sprinklers and collecting flowers and pointing at clouds and being decorative, supporting accents in male fantasies of heaven.

Check this: Sean Penn is played as a youngster by Hunter McCracken… unless young Sean Penn is supposed to be one of the other two brothers (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). It’s never really clear from the film where in the brother lineup the younger version of Penn’s character is meant to come. But it doesn’t matter! He could be any one of them, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. There could have been a sister to share in the childhood discovery that you are not the center of the universe, or that God — if God exists — is maybe somewhere in between the capricious father and the saintly mother. But there isn’t. There doesn’t need to be, in Malick’s universe.

So light up a joint and put on some Pink Floyd and, like, contemplate. Dude.

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watch at home

The Tree of Life (2011)
US/Can release: May 27 2011
UK/Ire release: Jul 8 2011

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated G: God is like cruel and ethereal and mysterious, dude
MPAA: rated PG-13 for some thematic material
BBFC: rated 12A (contains potentially dangerous behaviour)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
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