Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 30, 2018)
From 1973 to 2010, Terrence Malick directed a mere four movies. In 2011, he released The Tree of Life, his second Oscar Best Picture-nominated effort, and apparently this unleashed a creative rush.
From Tree in 2011 to 2018’s Radegund, Malick made five films. Once known as a director who rarely put out new material, Malick suddenly became a filmmaking machine.
Whether this abets Malick’s legacy seems up for grabs. While Tree got a good reception, the next three films received weak reviews, a complete shift from the consistent praise he earned for everything through Tree.
Perhaps Radegund will reclaim Malick’s prior glories. It looks more and more likely that Tree will become his critical last gasp, though.
Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) spends his youth in small-town Texas circa the 1950s. One of three brothers, he grows up with a kind, nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain) and a tough, hard-edged father (Brad Pitt).
These experiences stick with Jack. As an adult (Sean Penn), he continues to cope with the events that shaped him as a child.
Have I ever written a more vague story synopsis? Probably, but this one comes close to my least-detailed overview.
That’s because Malick never was one for plot-heavy movies. While I hesitate to call him a “style over substance” director, he clearly puts more of an emphasis on visuals and pacing than narrative specifics.
This trend continues for Tree, a movie with nothing one could call an actual “plot” – and the narrative elements I describe above don’t arrive until we’ve already made a considerable dent in the film’s running time. Tree starts in the 1960s and alludes to the death of one of the brothers before it then flashes back - way, way back - to the creation of life on Earth.
If that’s not a “WTF?” moment, what is? It all makes sense eventually, as the view of pre-history connects to Malick’s themes of water and nurturance, but the shift may jar the viewer.
Tree follows this “origin story” with material more connected to the main characters, as we see Jack’s birth and early childhood. From there we eventually catch up with the 1950s Jack we follow for most of the movie’s running time.
Once this finally occurs nearly 50 minutes into the film, Tree becomes more conventional, but it clearly remains part of the Malick oeuvre. This means that the 1950s Jack narrative feels more traditional than the heavily atmospheric material that precedes it but Tree stays extremely impressionistic.
To some degree, I appreciate this, as Malick clearly refuses to spoon-feed the audience, and at its best, Tree can become an evocative picture of childhood. As usual, Malick paints a film of indelible imagery that bolsters the effort.
However, Malick’s stubborn refusal to embrace any true form of “normal” storytelling becomes wearisome after a while. Too much of Tree feels more like a collection of someone’s old home movies than an attempt to tell a coherent narrative.
I get that Malick wants to deliver an experience more focused on themes than plot, but Tree never really manages to dig into its concepts in a compelling way. Sure, it tries to take on a broad array of elements, but it doesn’t expand them in a deep manner.
This means it dabbles with various domains. We get notions of good vs. evil – mainly via the contrast between Jack’s mother and father – and Malick embraces water in a major way, as it operates consistently as a factor for positive and negative means. We also find a heavy religious component as well as morality in a flawed world.
All of this seems intended to go somewhere, but it doesn’t. The themes feel like windowdressing more than anything else and they don’t contribute real meaning to the movie.
In truth, Tree really just offers an artsy telling of a well-trodden story about life with a stern father. Leave out its impressionistic trappings and does it bring an effort that goes anywhere deeper than something like Great Santini?
Nope – for all its pretensions, Tree doesn’t deliver the goods in terms of real introspection or meaning. It looks great and I respect its attempts to go somewhere different with its concepts, but the end result lacks true depth.