I like Terrence Malick films, but I don’t recommend them for everyone. The Thin Red Line is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s up there with Fight Club and Memento in the short list of films I’ve seen a dozen times or more. His latest film just came out, called The Tree of Life, staring Brad Pitt.
The problem with his movies for most people, particularly The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life, is they are long, abstract, non-linear and have fuzzy narrative structures that intentionally defy easy comprehension. They are not sitcoms or thrillers: you have to put more of your attention in to get something out. The upside is every moment in his films is beautiful and unusual. He reaches as far as he can with the medium of film to express ideas and feelings hard to capture any other way. If you made it through Koyaanisqatsi, Mallick is easy to watch, as there is comparatively lots of narrative – but most people don’t make it all the way through Koyaanisqatsi. In fact in the matinée showing I saw of Tree of Life, one couple got up and left half-way through.
Actual review starts here: The main story is about a boy growing up in Texas (played as an adult by Sean Penn) in the 1950s, with an overbearing father and a loving, but submissive mother, and how they deal with joy and crisis in their lives. Like 2001: a Space Odyssey, there are many scenes wrapped around this story that are abstract, and about the nature of life and the history of the universe. The movie wanders in and out of the main story in epic, but sometimes disorienting fashion. Many epic themes: fathers, mothers, doors, trees (no surprise), love, hate, birth and death. The mystery of grace, a theme of the Thin Red Line as well, is central here as well.
And there’s something about how he films people that feels like memory. The camera moves in unusual, but not distracting, over-the shoulder ways. His colors and textures magically feel more like my own memories of childhood, warm and slightly worn out, rather than the perfectly sharp and clean feeling most films have.
Every negative review I’ve read of the movie is accurate. Mallick could use a sense of humor. His vision is overbearing and relentless. But so are the positive ones: he makes art unlike what you will find from Hollywood. He offers a different kind of uplifting experience in the theater. Something about his films acts like a seed in the mind, growing in potency after you leave. There were moments in the film I’ve been thinking about again and again since I left, and the stretches where I felt bored have been reduced away. Unlike most movies where the pleasure is only found in the watching, Tree of Life, if you have the patience, pays off in the thinking and feeling for long after you leave the theater.
Trailer below – it’s in limited run in the U.S. – if you’re interested, definitely worth seeing in the theater. You can find a list of theaters where it’s playing by zip code: