The Oscar-nominated epic The Tree of Life is ambitious, but it takes more than ambition to make a masterpiece.
’Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how.’
So said Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, of his first encounter with the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian film director who, as Bergman put it, ‘invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream’. It is unlikely anyone familiar with Tarkovsky’s work could watch the Oscar 2012 Best Picture nominee The Tree of Life and say its director, Terrence Malick, has accomplished a similar feat.
Malick does not possess the keys to the room that Tarkovsky – and, indeed, Bergman – confidently created their works in. But he is at least trying to speak these masters’ language, aspiring to reflect and present to us the kind of poetic vision they had. And in a climate where any attempt to provide depth of insight into the human condition is likely to be booed (as The Tree of Lifewas at Cannes), those artists who do strive towards this ‘lofty’ goal should be commended.
There’s no question that Malick’s film is ambitious. It’s a sweeping attempt to present the audience with the birth and end of the universe, with the emergence and maturity of life on Earth, and with the full palette of human emotions, all encapsulated by the experiences of a young family living in Texas in the 1950s. Many, from film critic Roger Ebert to actor Robert De Niro, have praised Malick’s ambition accordingly. But is ambition enough to make a great movie?
The Tree of Life has hardly gone unnoticed. Apart from the Oscar nomination, it also won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year, despite the audience’s booing. But critics have been as likely to gush about what sets The Tree of Life apart from the standard Hollywood fare (‘not for this director the dreadnought snarls of Nickelback, but extracts of Couperin, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler and Bach’, said one) than about what actually makes it a great film on its own terms.
Indeed, you could detect a faint sense of fear among critics that if the flaws in the film are acknowledged and it is seen as anything less than a revolutionary masterpiece, then audiences won’t give this abstract epic the benefit of the doubt and will avoid it. The implication is often that this would be a great loss because we’d miss out on something that would be good for our souls to watch. The same irritating outlook can be found among some critics discussing Tarkovsky. One writer has gone as far as saying that those who appreciate Tarkovsky’s films are ‘very likely to be better people than those who walk out or reject this kind of cinema entirely: more considerate, more capable of self-control, less quick to anger, less manipulable by bright lights and loud bangs’.
Well, compared to Malick’s earlier work The Thin Red Line, notorious for its long scenes of wind blowing through grass, The Tree of Life is actually a remarkably impatient film. Many of the scenes are short and fragmented, pared down almost to the absolute minimum needed to convey a meaning. In one scene, Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt), the father in the young Texan family, stares wondrously at his newly-born son’s foot. Then, the plot lurches restlessly on, alongside a soundtrack of symphonies and vague philosophical mumblings from the cast. Not content with simply presenting us with the experiences of the family, Malick takes us through a kaleidoscopic journey from the birth of time, the primordial soup in the sea, the reign of dinosaurs, asteroids crashing into planets and dying worlds. And then there’s actor Sean Penn, playing Jack, one of O’Brien’s sons, now middle-aged, wistfully going through life in a twenty-first-century city and reminiscing about his childhood.
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Most of this is entirely unnecessary. In trying to show us literally everything, to impress upon us the enormity of the universe and human experience - past, present and future - Malick tries far too hard. He ends up losing control and undermining, rather than adding to, the themes he wants to explore. It makes you want to shout at the screen, ‘slow down and give our imaginations some credit!’ In Solaris, Tarkovsky managed to evoke questions about the nature of existence with a simple shot of the stars. By contrast, Malick’s vast array of CGI worlds, galaxies and nebulae appear flat, devoid of any depth of meaning, almost the opposite of poetic.
It’s a real shame as, among the fragments of events and experiences Malick presents us with there are some aspects of human relationships here that are rarely captured on film. Leaving aside the death of one of the brothers and the tense father-son relationships, which can lead you to think that Malick gained script ideas from sessions with a psychoanalyst, Malick gets the best out of his actors. Particularly good is Hunter McCracken as the young Jack. He brilliantly portrays the struggle for dominance, independence and control experienced by young boys and the ways this leads them to develop a sense of morality, brotherhood and dependency. A scene where Jack betrays the trust of his brother through shooting his fingertip with a pellet gun, and the aftermath showing Jack’s growing sense of regret, stands out.
But such moments are suffocated by Malick’s desire to present us with the complete wonders of the universe. Sometimes this can go terribly wrong, like when he shows a wounded dinosaur being spared by another in some bizarre, prehistoric exhibition of compassion. This attempt to suggest that grace existed even in dinosaurs, rather than being a unique characteristic of humanity, makes Malick’s understanding of the world seem facile. This single instance makes you doubt the profundity of the ideas he is trying to get across in general. In a film such as this, where a leap of faith is required from the audiences to make them trust that there is method in the director’s apparent madness, such a lapse into Disneyesque anthropomorphism can be terminal.
In the fragmented The Tree of Life, there are frustrating glimpses of the far better work Malick could have achieved if he’d slowed down, left the CGI alone and stuck with the narrative of the Texan family living in the Fifties. It’s as if he’s reluctant, perhaps too shy, to bare his soul in such a way without thinking the audience needs distractions from it. Dedicating a whole film to unpacking the relationships between the characters and making full use of the remarkable cast could have been equally ambitious - and might just have created a great film.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.