31 July 2011

De Naturae Natura

I finally got round to seeing The Tree of Life today and, well, let's just say that I'm glad I only paid £7 for the screening and not £12.50. I didn't hate the film but for me, the most important role of a film is entertainment--I don't have to laugh or even smile, necessarily, but I like to be told a story and although The Tree of Life did tell a story, it could have told the same story in a fraction of its 2h20 runtime.

Terrence Malick has constructed a beautiful film and an unusual one but did I enjoy it? Not a great deal. The plot, such as it is, involves Brad Pitt playing a tough father and Jessica Chastain his gentle wife in 1950s Texas. They have, I think, three sons, although partly because of the achronological interspersal of the scenes, it's not entirely clear. Certainly, you never see them with more than three sons at once but sometimes only two of them are there and not always the same two.

Pitt's character (as with almost all of the characters, we never hear his name) is trying to teach his kids, especially Jack, the eldest, to be strong. He himself wanted to be a musician but gave it up in favour of getting a steady job at the plant; he also seems to be resentful of the fact that he holds dozens of patents for inventions he will never bring to life. He punishes the boys, shouts at them and generally makes them fear him. He is following "the way of Nature" that Chastain's character tells us about in a voiceover at the start; she, meanwhile, represents the way of Grace. She's beautiful, quiet and peaceful and likes to spin around in her '50s frocks on her lawn (there is a lot of spinning and other circle imagery in the film) and catch butterflies on her hand.

Scenes of the boys' childhood, including some tragedies, are intermixed with the occasional flash-forward to Sean Penn, who plays a much older Jack. Actually, Penn has so little screen time (less than ten minutes, almost all of it in the last few minutes of the film), his role was practically a cameo. He seems to be some sort of architect or possibly just a businessman who likes riding elevators in very tall, glass skyscrapers and he likes to reflect back on his childhood, his parents, his brothers and, like his mother, the nature of his position in the Universe.

Now, all of these scenes are punctuated with long, beautiful musings on the history of life, the Universe and everything: the birth and death of the Universe, dinosaurs, evolution, planets, and so on. The longest of these, often referred to as "the dinosaur bit" lasts a good 20 minutes and has almost no voiceover whatsoever. I almost expected Brian Cox to start saying how really, really wonderful evolution was; in fact, much as Cox irritates me, I almost wished he would start narrating because I found this section boring and rather patronising.

Thanks, Malick, but I know quite a bit about the history of the Earth and evolution and if I want to find out more, I'd go to the Natural History Museum or something. At least there, the explanatory films you can watch have an interesting narrative. Sure, there was nice, haunting music and pretty pictures but it was, IMHO, completely unnecessary: much of what can be gleaned from this section, can be picked up from the rest of the film. It felt like a pretentious video exhibit at a modern art gallery and an unnecessary appendage; Malick should have made a longer, separate documentary instead. The best bit about the dinosaur bit was definitely that you knew (or hoped, anyway) that none of the other ethereal interludes would be as long or dull as that one.

Anyway, even excluding this section, the film was still too long and because there was so little plot and so little pacing, towards the end, it really felt like it was dragging because there was no sense of dénouement and I had no idea whether it was going to go on for another ten minutes with very little happening or another 30. I was so annoyed by the pretentiousness of the dinosaur bit that it did taint my enjoyment of the rest of the film somewhat. I was interested in the family, their dealing with grief and the effects Jack's formative years had on his adult life, but there just wasn't enough of this. Maybe it was just too subtle for me but I came out of the film feeling like I hadn't really learned enough about the family.

And the best thing about the film was still getting to spot Brad and Angelina at the première in Cannes.

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