The opening night film for the Belgrade FEST was “The Tree of Life”. You’ve heard the debates. You’ve read the criticism. Is it a good film? It’s good as an avant-garde film, which it seems to be more than a narrative feature. I appreciate the play with form and the willingness to tackle the largest of questions and scenarios. There is a bit too much grand contemplation for my tastes, too many shots of trees with the sunlight sneaking through them in dramatic fashion. In films of this type one is meant to look in awe at every shot as if it is a magnificent work of art in its own right. But no film or filmmaker is that good and no one can sustain such lofty airs for two and a half hours. Ultimately “The Tree of Life” is a balloon that blows up in the artist’s face.
Sean Penn is absolutely wasted in the film, which is a crime in and of itself. He does little more than wander around and stare at the skyscrapers that dwarf him, running his fingers through blades of grass, looking either forlorn or inquisitive. Brad Pitt does a great job as a harsh father figure and the child actors all perform beautifully in the film. Of course, the centerpiece of the film is a visual rendering of not just the formation of the Earth but the very first sparks of existence of the universe too. I don’t believe this has already become de rigueur but here it seems that “The Tree of Life” deserves comparison with Kubrick’s “2001”.
Both films would seem to narrate the life cycle of the Earth and man himself. One is naturalistic and the other the opposite. Both are supreme ambitions from directors with elevated reputations. “2001” exhibits more formal control but is every bit as experimental as “The Tree of Life”, perhaps even more so. And for all the beauty of Malick’s show-stopping creational montage it still can’t compare to the lucidity and power of the most famous cut in film history from “2001”, which boils Malick’s entire complex montage down to one outwardly simple yet deeply transformative moment.
Obviously I prefer “2001” but the comparisons should end now. It seems that Malick tries too hard to capture poetry and then to force feed it down the viewer’s throat. The film smacks of effort and flails all over the place. It is not a failure, but I would also argue it is not the great game-changing film it so clearly aspires to be.