dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt,
Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I like trees. Sometimes I talk to them. When I forget to take my meds, the trees talk back. It's okay, though. Clint Eastwood talked to trees in Paint Your Wagon while Harve Presnell called the wind "Maria". It's all good. One can be manly and still commune with nature. You need not bag game with automatic assault rifles, or use dynamite to float stunned fish into a net or careen down backroads in a half-ton with jars of open liquor sloshing down one's throat.
Those things are manly, to be sure, but so is talking to trees.
I was, it seems, a happy child. I loved dinosaurs, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and inhaling the misty aroma of DDT as it wafted gently through my suburban paradise, keeping it bereft of mosquitoes, numerous birds and other small animals. I attended church regularly – cherishing the solace, architecture and magical dapplings of light piercing the stained glass.
Dearest Dad, being an ex-cop was (understandably) of the authoritarian persuasion – strict to be sure, but a hard-working fellow who wished only to provide for his family. And Mom? She was a saint, not unlike Mother Teresa.
Winnipeg, where I grew up during the 60s and 70s always seemed a couple of decades behind the rest of the world – very post-war if you will. ’Twas, I might add, a leafy city – thus rendering the aforementioned tree worship.
It was like any small town or sleepy burg - anywhere. Hell, for all anyone knows, it might as well have been . . . Texas.
Now hold on! Hold on just a goldurn' second! I thought this was my life I was talking about, but the more I ruminate on those halcyon days of yore, it's all starting to sound suspiciously similar to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
Has Malick captured a universal truth or was my life that pathetic?
A resounding NO!
My relatively uneventful childhood was, finally, much more interesting and poetic than Malick's lugubrious Battle of Ypres upon my gluteal muscles.
Granted, Malick is a filmmaker whose work I otherwise adore, but The Tree of Life stinks like an un-wiped asshole. Worse yet, way too many critics (and audiences of the "pseud" variety) pretended to find merit in this precious nonsense – extolling the virtues of Malick’s ambition and praising him for taking a bold risk.
For me, the only thing Malick took was a bold dump. I can only hope he found it satisfying and didn't forget to wipe.
What happens with pictures like these is that big stars like Brad Pitt take non-roles and desperately try to make something of them - finally giving up and giving in to the grand maestro who is "directing" them. After all, this is supposed to be art - not the usual crap they do that people might actually enjoy.
Basically, Pitt does little more than sleepwalk through the role of the taciturn Dad who beats one or all of his boys (however many there are - we never know for sure) and eventually weeps at the death of one of the aforementioned sons - whichever one it is. I’m not sure if Dad even knows which one of his sons died, but that's probably okay, because I certainly didn’t know, nor do I think anyone else in the audience knew either.
At the end of the day, Pitt varies his three expressions from adoring to mean to sad - that is, when he's not sleepwalking (which, I suppose counts as a fourth expression). This gives those who should know better an opportunity to heap accolades upon a performance that's really anything but.
Sean ("Fuck, look at me, I'm so intense") Penn shows up every so often in what appear to be flash forwards to a time long after Dad has died. He is, apparently, one of the sons, however many there are of the little buggers. Penn is clearly not the son who died. He might as well have kicked the bucket though, because it's clear his soul is bereft of life. He is in pain. Deep pain. Which is fine, I suppose, because so are we, the audience.
Have I mentioned the dinosaurs yet? No? Well, I'm not kidding. At one point, during the non-story of this family in post-war Texas, Malick takes a break from the regularly scheduled programming and delivers a long sequence involving the birth of the universe and, by extension, that of the planet Earth which, of course, involves dinosaurs generated by CGI and many trees - all teeming, no doubt, with life.
Jessica Chastain is the wife and mother of this family that we spend an awful lot of time with, but never really get to know because they ultimately do not exist as characters and as such, only resemble people because they are clearly not dinosaurs.
Nor are they trees.
Chastain has proven - in films in which she has something to do other than bake pies, look at a tree and do laundry - that she is an exquisite actress. Here, she at least appears to perform her chores as wife and mother very well. This is, I trust, acting.
Most of all, Chastain thankfully provides scenery equal to the tree Malick keeps forcing us to look at.
And yes, I talk to the trees and they, in turn, talk to me.
The Tree of Life is rich and bountiful.
Unless you’re talking about the movie.
This is a longer version of a piece that originally appeared in Electric Sheep Magazine. The movie is available for those who really feel they want to buy it on Blu-Ray from eOne.
Clint Eastwood Talks To The Trees:
Harve Presnell Calls The Wind "Maria":