This is the film that average Joe does not want to win the Oscar and he's gonna get all pissed when it beats Thor.
I think my greatest comeuppance as a reviewer is always going to be expressionism. I have for as long as I've lived detested art for art's sake, found poetry less valuable than a novel, photography of less value than cinema. I've always felt if art is about communicating, then its most complete form is always going to be the story, where the technicality and artistry of creating come together to serve an end, rather than they simply being the end. It's a personal bias, but I've found it to be a pretty steadfast one, so when I say I'm the worst person to review Tree Of Life, you know that I mean it. I think as a consequence of this I've never seen an expressionistic film I've connected with, I've seen ones I admire or can appreciate maybe, but never connect with. I've found the problem with expressionistic cinema is that it draws attention to the how, it is concerned with communicating emotion, and does so without the need to 'go anywhere' whatever that means, hence the many inevitable accusations of slow and boring. Accusations that the seven people who walked out of my screening would surely submit toward the Tree Of Life
Now I don't mind slow and boring, as its come to be known, but what I do hate is aimless. The difference between having something to say and having nothing to say. And art film has too often been the refuge of film-makers who have nothing to say, and who use expressionism as a means to conceal this, Gus Van Sant's Elephant and almost every Sofia Coppola film I would site here, and too often people don't call bullshit on these films and thus people begin to hate the entire idea of the art film. Much as I did for a while, because it felt that there was simply too much of the latter and not enough of the former. Suffice to say, Tree Of Life has something to say, and my initial response to it was that somehow it's both a travesty and a masterpiece. Some of the worst stuff you'll see all year is in this movie, scenes that feel like someone's walked up to most ridiculous, stereotypical and pretentious film student and said 'here's 60 million dollars, do what you will'. But then there's also aspects that are so sublime, so ingeniously and subtly handled that it doesn't feel an overstatement to say it's amongst the best stuff I've seen in a cinema in my life. I think what's happened here is that a genius has been allowed to self-indulge with no checks, and as a consequence he's produced both the best and worst that he's capable of producing.
I found a lot of the film's first third to be close to intolerable. A voice-over in which characters would wax broadly philosophical was painful, and it seems to use the death of a child too easily to create an impact, as apposed to exploring the consequences of it. I found pretty much everything involving Sean Penn to be pretty awful to be honest, just him looking lost against tall modern buildings and nature-scapes. Imagery so cliched that at the point Penn started walking through a weird looking rock formation in a suit I laughed, and make no apologies for it. It was incredibly lame. And just when I thought I was in for an almighty train-wreck we abandon all our characters for a 40 minute sojourn into how the universe was created. Now at first I was wowed by the imagery. It looked incredibly beautiful, shot with such a sense of wonder and skill it was a treat for the senses. And then it kept going, to the point where I honestly couldn't make a distinction between a high school science video except a fat effects budget and classical music. I'm sure it's all a metaphor about how beautiful life is if only we cared to look and how furiously it has to work to even come into being, but this was such an incredibly pretentious sequence I was waxing pretty furious even before the horrible voice-over come back and made me just want to leave.
I was so excited that I was going to get to be the guy to call Tree Of Life a piece of shit and mean it, how hipster awesome I would be, but then the film returned focus on its central family, like any other, and promptly became incredible. The story of a boy's childhood was being told with the same sense of reverence we had seen devoted to the universe's creation, the same sense of awe and wonder, the same sense of beauty. But whereas the scale of creation is something Malick simply can't say anything about with authority. He knew this family, he knew the exact emotions and experiences and he knew exactly how to express them. So watching this intimate, tiny story being told with such clarity and vision by means of expressionism was simply incredible, and amongst the best stuff ever put on film. It just rang so true, because when you're a child, you don't rationalize, you don't reason, and everything is taken in through a whirl of emotion and I think no film has truly captured what it is to be a small child quite like Tree Of Life. It had the detail the opening did not, it was no longer speculating or suppositing. This entire sequence, which I reckon was the film's bulkiest, was so beautiful I quickly found myself losing my anger and reservations toward it.
Brad Pitt, who has recently been notching up an unfortunate record of being in great where films where someone else just blows him off the screen, Rinko Kikuchi in Babel, Casey Affleck in Jesse James and Christophe Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, faces no such problem here, giving a performance that not only will be Oscar nominated, but will deservedly be so. It's the best performance he's given since Fight Club, and certainly the most mature work he's ever done. Pitt is always someone who has been a better actor then his looks allow for, and one is getting the sense that his best work might be done in the next ten years, now that his looks are less of an all-consuming factor. Jessica Chastain isn't really asked to do much beyond look spiritual and ethereal, but that she does excellently, and Malick certainly gets great performances out of the kids. As I mentioned before, Penn's entire part is pretty embarrassing, so there's not really much to say about that.
Thinking about it though, I can only give this film a great review. Because while some of it is intolerable, and boy will there be people who want their money back who didn't know what they were getting into, the parts I liked were so impressive and perhaps the first time I've truly lost my shit for expressionism that I can't not tell people to go and see this film. There's some legitimate 10/10 material in Tree Of Life, there's just some 2/10 stuff as well. What it is, I think, is two incredibly specific films awkwardly fit together in a way that doesn't really work or make sense (yeah yeah, metaphors, fuck you) yet one of these films is amongst the best films I've ever seen. Like I said, someone let a genius cut loose, and it's produced the best and the worst of him. But if you have patience for it, the best is worth the wait.