“The Tree of Life” Review

By: Jordan Magrath

Movie Mashup: “Planet Earth” & “A Serious Man”

When Terrance Malick’s much anticipated film “The Tree of Life” finally premiered at the Cannes movie festival, it was met with both critical applause and scornful boo’s.

At first, I couldn’t quite understand how it could get such ranging reactions.  Now, I completely understand…

The movie, I think, is the ultimate culmination of conflicting philosophical issues within the frame of one family’s narrative.  It deals with the complex issues, ranging from creationism to existentialism.  It may not be fair to narrow the film down to its primary core, but if I did, it would boil down the central question: why the hell do we exist?

At the film’s narrative core is Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) and the rest of his family.  On-screen, viewers get to watch as Jack progresses from an innocent boy into a rambunctious rebel, within a flashback-style storyline following his brother’s death.  His rebellion comes from the strained relationship with his loving, but ultimately harsh and border-line abusive, father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt).

This seems to be the core plot line in the convoluted, non-linear format of the film.  I hesitate when summarizing the film because I honestly don’t know how to explain it correctly.  I think the only way to truly find a plot is to think of it in broad terms.  This is where most of the problem lies, since you are forced to think in broad terms, even though the entire plot focuses on a narrow subject set (a family).  This could be one of the main problems I encountered during the viewing since I found the O’Brien family more atypical than typical.  It was tough to generalize their family to the rest of the population.

Now, if I step back a bit, maybe I shouldn’t be so tough on the film.  Since it has been widely reported that Malick worked on this project for decades, and bases it on his own personal experiences, maybe I’m not supposed to completely understand it.  Maybe we, as human beings, aren’t supposed to understand life, religion, or whatever the main message of the film is.

However, I refuse to call a movie “good” when I can’t understand it (enter: “Mulholland Drive”).  When moviegoers justify a confusing movie by saying “it isn’t meant to be understood,” I find this completely irritating.  If you aren’t supposed to understand it, what’s the point?  This seems like such a shitty copout, to say the least.

With all that being said, I do believe that Malick meant for this movie to be understood.  I haven’t seen many of his films, but his use of stunning visuals and harsh characters led me to believe that there was a point, or at least a “moral to the story.”  I just felt like I needed to work much too hard to find this point, and I’m all for having to work at the right conclusion, if there is, in fact, a basis for a conclusion.  Other ambiguous movies have plenty of room for interpretation, but Malick’s newest film has too much space for conclusions.

I’ve seen similar movies with similar themes with much more effectiveness.  Malick does expect his audience to be smart, but I don’t think this movie was quite as effective as the Coen’s “A Serious Man,” which dealt primarily with the Book of Job.  I shouldn’t fault the visual nature of “The Tree of Life,” but I can’t justify it’s story, especially in comparison to a Coen production.  The only thing Malick’s film has on “A Serious Man” is it’s creation adventure, which seemed a bit long and out-of-place, but was something visually spectacular.  It actually captured the difficult concept that the universe is so giant that it’s unfathomable.

So, in the end, was I clapping or booing?  Well, you’ll never quite understand.

Rating: B-

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