Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fog of Film: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Though it’s been a decidedly lacklustre summer at the movies, there’s one film that’s a must see, if you are to believe its almost uniformly rapturous reviews. Apparently, The Tree of Life, the latest opus from Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World) is one for the ages, a masterpiece equivalent to any of the great movies, such as, I suppose, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, The Seven Samurai, The ‘Apu’ Trilogy, M*A*S*H and The Godfather, Part 1 and II, to name a few important milestones in world cinema. Well, I can’t concur with that view. The Tree of Life is actually pretty mediocre; a movie that traffics in indulgent, pretentious and often empty (albeit) beautiful imagery. It's a film most defined by the word meretricious: …"apparently attractive but in reality has little value:” That evaluation, too, pretty much sums up Malick’s career.

In many ways, and not just because they share similar eccentricities, Terrence Malick reminds me most of Stanley Kubrick, another genuine American talent who, after a strong film-making debut, pretty much flamed out, delivering mostly wretched, excessive movies in his late career. Kubrick, after offering up such gems as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), then trailed off and dove relentlessly into a sea of forgettable mediocrity. Excepting his fine A Clockwork Orange (1971), his second half, much less prolific, oeuvre included the nonsensical and loopy science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the vapid Barry Lyndon (1975), starring a woefully miscast Ryan O’Neal in what is surely the most tedious costume drama ever made; the (deliberately?) botched adaptation of Stephen King’s fine horror novel The Shining (1975); Full Metal Jacket (1987), an incoherent war movie to rival Malick’s own The Thin Red Line (1998); and, of course, Kubrick’s final movie, the ridiculous Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which transposed a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler to the end of the 20th century while pretending that its themes of sexual jealousy, wherein the woman merely contemplates an affair, would be reacted to in the same fashion nearly a hundred years on.

Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven.
Malick, for his part, after a stunning, powerful debut with Badlands (1973), loosely based on the life of thrill killer Charles Starkweather, followed up with Days of Heaven (1978), a beautifully shot, somewhat affecting love triangle set in depression-era America. Though I enjoyed that movie, despite the miscasting of Richard Gere as a manual laborer, it was also laden with a distinct lack of narrative flow and a disinterest in strong characterization. Nevertheless, being a departure from his first film, I felt it was a forgivable deviation and I looked forward to what he would do next. However, after a twenty year hiatus, the Malick who returned to film-making, pretty much stood still as a director, continuing to make movies such as The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005), which, even more so than Days of Heaven, concentrated almost solely on forming pretty pictures, eschewing in the process any vestige of flesh and blood emotional dramas, stories that would have left a lasting impact. The Tree of Life, unfortunately, is more of the same.

Somewhat autobiographical, the movie is largely set in 1950s Waco, Texas, and revolves around a family, comprised of an embittered patriarch (Brad Pitt), his long suffering wife (Jessica Chastain) who puts up with his emotional abuse, and their three children (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) who grow up in a fractured, dissonant household. But the film begins with news of the death of one of the boys (it doesn’t specifically identify which one, but likely the sensitive Steve) at age 19. The other time frame in the movie is about forty years later when the oldest boy, Jack, now an architect (and played by Sean Penn, in what is little more than an extended cameo) copes with the lingering pain of his brother’s death before heading off on a pilgrimage wherein he rejoins his family, including his late brother and others of his loved ones who have died. Oh, did I mention the dinosaurs? Extrapolating from the film’s opening quotation from The Book of Job, when God tells Job about his creating the Earth, (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”), The Tree of Life decides to do just that, showing the Earth being created, then the dinosaurs appearing and, finally, the first mammal coming into existence.

Obviously, Malick felt that this special effects-laden sequence needed to be included in the movie, but it’s an awfully distracting, irritating and dramatically unnecessary addition to the film, one that pushed me entirely out of the movie and prompted me to muse on where I was going to have dinner that evening after the show. One sequence, where a dinosaur casually stomps another, was pretty startling and disquieting, but the fact that it effectively conveyed more emotion than any scene involving their human counterparts spoke volumes. (It also reminded me of the inventive scene in the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Adaptation (2002), wherein the fictional Charlie Kaufman character, played by Nicolas Cage, muses about the beginnings of the universe and his place in the scheme of things after a bad date. The ensuing depiction of the Earth's birth is thus germane to the film and very funny, besides. Needless to say, humour is non-existent in Malick's output.)

Look at the pretty pictures!

It’s Malick’s insistence on cluttering up what could have been a devastating story with all manner of set pieces that call attention to themselves instead of melding seamlessly into the whole which surely sinks The Tree of Life and alienates so many in the audience. (One of my students was warned before purchasing his ticket that walkouts were plentiful, surely a first in box office etiquette. He stayed all through the film, but reluctantly.) Consider one potentially gripping sequence where Jack wanders through his hometown eavesdropping on and observing the disturbing angry underbelly of the city. It could have built in power and momentum but Malick abruptly ends it almost as soon as it begins.

Similarly, he short shrifts his cast in the same fashion. Pitt is given a bit to play with – his father figure has settled for a career as a salesman instead of pursuing a life in music, his first love – but that doesn’t entirely explain why he is alternately abusive and loving. Chastain, for her part, gets to look pained when she isn’t standing up for her boys but, again, it’s not much of a character to delve into. As for the boys, well Jack is rebellious and Steve is sensitive but that’s it and the middle kid is a cipher, not even appearing in the latter part of the movie. Losing track of his protagonists is old hat for Malick; I still don’t know where actor Jared Leto got to in the The Thin Red Line. It also should be significant for us to know how Steve died. Did he enlist in Vietnam to prove to his dad that he could be a man? Did he commit suicide? Did he die in an accident? (Possibly the last scenario, as the movie mutters a lot about the uncaring vagaries of life and death.) Not imparting that bit of information isn’t a minor error in the movie, it’s a colossal plot hole and indicative, again, of Malick's refusal to delve deeply into his characters’ lives, assuming, incorrectly, that his images and shots can carry the movie. Some of these images, such as a shot of the boys carousing in the midst of a poisonous cloud of DDT as a city truck sprays for mosquitoes, are indelible but that’s no substitute for detail and depth. Unsatisfyingly, all we get are glimpses and impressions of the town and its inhabitants.

Director Terrence Malick.
So why are all the critics so ga-ga for this minor, fractured movie? Some of it is them getting on the critical bandwagon, as the movie won the top prize at Cannes last spring (Other bad movies like Barton Fink, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives have also won there, so this fact shouldn’t impress anyone.) But much of it is the refusal of the critical establishment to recognize how bogus Malick actually is. The cineastes may not agree, but generally the best movies, such as The 400 Blows, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Schindler's List, Yi Yi, etc. and the ones mentioned in paragraph one, can boast of strong narratives and shaded characterizing working in tandem with skilled direction. The Tree of Life contingent would rather praise the movie’s ambition – the single most overused word in the rave reviews – as if that is laudatory in itself. Don’t hacks like Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow) and Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon) display ambition in their attempts to destroy our world or create new ones? It’s a meaningless compliment.

So what about the movie’s themes of life, death, faith, hope and charit?. Are those dealt with in a fresh, original way? Not really, since Malick merely uses them as hooks for his excellent cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) and set designer (Jack Fisk) to craft his gorgeous images on. (There's a 2001 connection to The Tree of Life, too, with that movie's special effects maven, Douglas Trumbull, contributing his expertise to Malick's film.) Besides, if you want to see a movie that does justice to these provocative concepts, check out Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men, Mike Leigh’s Naked, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Theodore Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or any number of better films that surpass Malick in thought and effect. You can also catch David Fincher's modern American masterpiece The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which also starred Brad Pitt. That film, as as Baltimore Sun movie critic Michael Sragow aptly pointed out, tackles all of The Tree of Life's big themes with considerably more success(I will concede that on one level, I can understand the critical enthusiasm for Malick. He has a movie director's eye, though he probably should have been a painter in his professional life. He's also like someone on acid unduly thrilled by the way the sun shines through the leaves; The New World was especially filled with those egregious images. I am more taken aback by the inexplicable praise lavished on inept directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall His Past Lives), Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Life During Wartime) who haven’t the faintest idea of how to frame or shoot a movie much less get good performances out of their casts.)

However, if you don’t ‘get’ the movie, wrote critic Stephanie Zacharek recently in, you’re apt to be pilloried for it, as if you’re a philistine, by your fellow critics. Andrew Tracy, one of those type of reviewers, writing in the current issue of Canada’s lesser film magazine Cinema Scope, which features a round table on this oh so important, vital movie, denounced critics who labeled the film ‘flawed’ or ‘imperfect’ as 'lazy.' Isn’t it their job to point out those elements in a film? Well, don’t worry, Andrew, I only use those terms for films that I can laud in the first place, seeing their flaws or imperfections as the weak components that mar an otherwise fine work of art. The Tree of Life doesn't even qualify for that appellation.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto. On Monday August 15 at the Carlton Cinemas at 7pm, Shlomo appears at the Toronto Film Society to introduce The Lost Moment (1947) and Raffles (1930). For details see


  1. There's a new and important review of the film.
    Explains the final shot of the bridge and what's R.L.
    Might make you change your opinion,positive or negative.


  2. I am no writer nor film critic but, I was stunned by your writing in this blog entry. Your easy dismissal of a slew of Malick and Kubrick films as well as facile comments such as "inept directors", in reference to Harmony Korine, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Solondz etc., shows a distinct lack of intelligent judgement. It demonstrates that your criticism is much more reactionary and solely based on your personal biases than I think it necessary for truly great film criticism. It is boring and uninformative to read point-blank dismissals as "wretched, excessive movies" in reference to Kubrick's "later" films, with little explanations to back up the reasons for such claims. I have not seen "The Tree of Life" but have thoroughly enjoyed Mallick's other films. I did not enjoy Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Syndromes and a Century". However, despite my personal taste in cinema, I still have respect and retain a certain amount of curiosity (openness) for the work of great artists of the medium whose work is personal and highly stylistic (as compared to commercial films produced solely for entertainment purposes). Your doors a shut. Your off-the-cuff comments are incredibly congratulatory. You sound frustrated and jealous to be on the sidelines writing about these great artists, brushing off their lesser work with such ease. You should look back in film history and learn from Godard, Truffaut and a slew of other critics turned film-makers. They, at least, put their money where their mouth is and improved on what they thought was lacking in the cinema of their time. They became great film-makers in their own right!
    There. Got that out of my system!!

  3. I read your review and can only come to one conclusion: You should just read books.

    In every case where you declare what is a good vs. a bad film the difference is lots of dialogue to spell out what the actors are thinking and telling the audience what to think. In any case where the director tells his story through images – where the audience has to pay attention, put the pieces of the puzzle together and draw their own conclusions – you criticize as having insufficient characterization.

    Notes from drama 101: action is character. A man who kills is a killer. In movies you SEE the killing. However, in Scholmo’s world, it only counts of the killer talks about the killing.

    Those films by Kubrick that you slag off so lightly are masterpieces of visual story telling. Maybe you should be looking at the screen and using your eyes and not thinking about dinner plans.


  4. Critics at Large's Shlomo Schwartzberg replies:

    I suspect Pauly is bent out of shape, since he admits that he hasn't yet seen The Tree of Life, by the fact that I have no compunction in labeling certain filmmakers as inept or rejecting the conventional wisdom about other director's movies being great. Well, that's called criticism and unlike so many of my colleagues, I will not ameliorate or water down my comments on anyone's work and if they're hacks, I'll call them out on that. I fail to see how that's reactionary in any way. You're just not used to that type of blunt writing, I suspect, but it's entirely legitimate. I also don't agree with your assertion that so called stylistic, 'personal' works are somehow more deserving of respect than commercial films, which you mistakenly assert are solely made for entertainment purposes, as if that were a bad thing. The Social Network and the last two Harry Potter movies, for example, would fit into the latter commercial category but they’ re also very good movies. As for your comments about my supposedly being jealous of the likes of Malick, you're ascribing motives that have nothing to do with my film criticism. His film, I feel, is bad and undeserving of all the acclaim it has received. By the way, I wouldn't be so quick to praise someone like Godard either since he hasn't made a decent film in forty years; all his brilliance is only manifest in his first decade of movie making. And I'm not obligated to become a movie maker, a career path you seem to feel is more acceptable than trashing work you like. But that's what good critics do. Check out Pauline Kael or James Agee if you want to read great criticism that doesn't pull its punches. I like to think that I come from that noble tradition. I certainly won’t jump on the bandwagon of hurrahs whenever an overly stylistic, trendy and empty movie like The Tree of Life comes down the pike.

    As for the second anonymous posting, if I can put my moniker to my review, the least you can do is attach your name to your criticism of me. But I will continue to read books and critique films that lack the basic characterization and thought-out narrative necessary for great films. The puzzle you speak of is missing too many pieces to be effective as powerful cinema. Pretty pictures alone do not a movie make.

  5. Well aren't you rather high and mighty. Maybe you, sir, should go out and make a film or two so we don't have to suffer watching the films of all of these inept directors any more. I'm sure you would just hit it right out of the park...

  6. It would also seem as if you're unable to appreciate anything that isn't a cookie cutter narrative. Grow a pair and learn to appreciate cinema for what it's capable of, not for how easily basic three act stories can be translated to the screen.

  7. Paul Thomas Anderson inept? Ha ha ha good one. Not only is every frame of The Master perfect and beautiful but he gets the VERY best out of his casts look at all the oscar nominations actors have had from his films. 3 this year for The Master alone!