Posted May 29, 2011 by William Dunmyer in Avant-Garde

Tree of Life: Overblown and Ponderous

“The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s new film, is hugely bloated and ponderous. Rarely have I seen a film so filled with over-statement. It pains me to say, but it seems that Malick, who has had a god-like reputation since his 1978 film “Days of Heaven,” is running out of ideas.


Instead of original ideas, what “Tree of Life” has is spectacular visuals and sound. The cinematography of four-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki is spectacular but in the way an IMAX film is. In the past few years, there have been about 10 films made to show off the power of IMAX. A nature photographer, for example, leads a camera crew on a visual exploration of world-renowned coral reefs. These could perhaps better be described as TV specials than films.


“Tree of Life” appears designed to give IMAX vehicles a run for their money. The ideas are slim at best, at times even laughable. But the kaleidoscopic visuals of “Tree of Life” do amaze. I was particularly taken with the editing of the visuals and sound. There were about a dozen different visual tracks that “Tree of Life” operates on, and the cross-cutting between them gave me goose bumps a number of times. I’d even go so far as to say that the editor is the standout here. As good as the cinematography is, it really has been done before. The editing, however, establishes a rhythm that is truly innovative. Frequently the editing takes on the innovative power and bold rhythm/anti-rhythm of 20th-century classical music.


There is a story at the center of “Tree of Life.” It takes a while to establish itself, but it eventually gets firmly grounded. A boy in an upper-middle-class Texas family struggles in the 1950s to deal with his domineering father (Brad Pitt) and finds comfort in the loving relationships he has with his mother and two brothers. Presumably, the boy is a stand-in at least to some degree for Malick himself, who spent his adolescence in Texas in the 1950s.


The point of the film, as I see it, is to draw correspondences between different levels of creation. The cosmic (formation of galaxies), the planetary (formation of species and ecosystems), and the human (formation of individuals and families). The problem is that this has been done hundreds of times before – and better. Compared to, say, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Tree of Life” is vapid and derivative. At times, “Tree of Life” seems like the Disney version of a Stanley Kubrick film.


“Tree of Life” is worth seeing, but if I had been on the Cannes jury I would not have voted to give it the top prize. (It took top prize at the Cannes festival that just ended a few weeks ago.) If you are looking for a film that wrestles in a truly innovative way with cosmic correspondences and the grand sweep of evolution, see the 2010 Cannes winner, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”




William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.