Set in Waco Texas in the 1950s. It starts out with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain learning about the death of their son. We go forward to Sean Penn thinking about his past. He is an architect adrift in the steel and glass of the 21st century. We then hear about grace and nature from the mother. We learn about lessons in spiritual disinterest from the Book of Job. We get voice-overs talking in prayer or poetry. Then we see shots of the origins of the universe. A dinosaur puts its foot on a sick dinosaur’s neck and then releases its foot. Then we see domestic life: Brad Pitt, the strict patriarch bullying his two sons. They go to church, we see Pitt at work. We see a man having a fit, people are arrested by the police. Pitt goes abroad and the two boys play and enjoy freedom. Pitt then loses his job. and acquires some wisdom in life. Then we get to see Sean Penn wandering on a beach with lots of people, his younger self and family, set to religious music.
THe special effects of this film are by Douglas Trumbull who did the effects for 2001 and there have been comparisons between Mallick’s film and Kubrick’s. At this point it’s interesting to compare the two film makers who have achieved cult status. If you are a film director who wants to achieve this status, you make a film once every few years (in Mallick’s case it’s five films in nearly forty years). You become an eccentric recluse, you don’t give interviews but you deliver the odd aphorism or oracular statement. You only talk to favoured journalists and critics. You cover your film in secrecy and your perfectionism is legendary. You always go way beyond your budget because your film is years in the making. Your tantrums are famous and every big name actor wants to work with you. Kubrick and Mallick share these lovable traits. Because they both use Douglas Trumbull on the cosmic imagery in 2001 and Tree of Life, one can compare the two. 2001 has been called an algebra of metaphors, it’s all quite coherent but in Tree of Life the symbolism doesn’t work, it lacks poetic progression and consistency. We get a juxtaposition of cosmic scenes, sea life and volcanoes. Then we get hand held camera close ups of this Waco Texas family sometimes living the American Dream: all dreamy soft peaks into the bliss of Christian family life until the tyrannical patriarch ruins it all by providing the film with its concession to mere drama. It’s as if David Attenborough’s Life on Earth footages are mixed up with suburban camcorder scenes. Where is the tree of life? They plant a small tree and that’s all. I expected some sort of thematic development around a biological or symbolic tree but it didn’t turn up. At the end of the film we get the embarrassing kitsch of Sean Penn strolling around a beach with lots of extras who look like they’ve strolled out of a Mormon service. These images of nature and religious mysticism look like commercials for insurance or cars. People have satisfied looks on their faces as they reach out to one another. The voice overs seem to be poetic but sound like pretentious whisperings from some failed pop music lyricist.
The characters are ‘American Dream’ stalwarts and on that count are highly suspect. Brad Pitt may play a brute but he’s supposed to be fundamentally decent because he’s a hardworking Christian. Interestingly, his hokey piety does not prevent him from being very cynical about his fellow human beings. The mother is by contrast a gentle soul who looks like an Anglo-Saxon Madonna. We see her giving water to convicts later floating round a tree for Pete’s sake. Sean Penn as Pitt’s grown up son is exiled in the steel and glass Babylon of corporate worldliness and wants us to know we took the wrong turning from the Edenic bliss of innocent family life. He looks like a tapir with haemorrhoids and at the end of the film. I hoped he’d walk into the sea and not come back. The kids are casting from the Bible, one’s a goody and the other is like dad. Mallick knew he had to have drama so he took the easy option of dad being the domestic tyrant.
Mallick is a Christian and his view of nature seems interestingly ambivalent. He does not share the gnostic view that nature is evil but he does think it is implacably cruel and we must show our humanity by rising above its’ assaults There are moments of mercy: the dinosaur, withdrawing its foot from the neck of a wounded dinosaur, the fiery cosmic forces that become grasses and flowers, and sea life but it’s sentimentalized as well. As in Badlands and the Thin Red Line we get syrupy music celebrating National Geographic prettiness.
After seeing this film a couple of times I’ve come to regard it as a self indulgent celebration of literal mindedness. We know nature is immense and beautiful, and life is mysterious, but Mallick takes a whole film and a lot of preachy nonsense to tell us so. Full marks for attempting things that most film makers might not dare to do, but it still fails. Its visionary ambitions are undermined by folksy Sunday school triteness, so I can understand those French audiences laughing at this and walking out of the film. I weakened at moments as I hoped I would be watching a masterpiece, but really it’s all pants.