The Tree of Life - Review (☆☆☆☆)

          This is not a film for the masses.  It doesn't matter that Pitt and Penn are in it.  It also doesn't matter that almost every critic loves it (including unpaid ones like me).  It matters slightly that it was written and directed by Terrence Malick, because he directed The Thin Red Line and The New World; if you remember those films, and liked them, there's a slight chance you'll like this one too.  And, it doesn't matter that Malick won the Palme D'Or for it either.

          The reason it doesn't matter that Pitt and Penn are in it is because dialogue is slim to nonexistent and they share a very crowded stage with trees, supernovas, rivers, dinosaurs, flames, volcanoes, oceans, births, deaths and dozens of other fractured-kaleidoscope images compiled with whispered suggestions for the viewer to interpret as they will.

          Were we seeing the narrator's today-thoughts?  His or her memories?  Dreams?  Could these images (set to pipe organ religious and classical music) be interpreted as answers to the various narrator's muttered prayers?  Was this just a 50's era retelling of the Oedipus myth?  If you like/need your films to provide closure and answers...this one intentionally does the opposite.  It provides nothing but fodder for thought and discussion.  I suspect very few people will take away the same message.  (Leaving the theater, I overheard a woman ask, "Who was Sean Penn supposed to be?")

          I question if it would ever be necessary to include the words 'spoiler alert' when talking about this film.  I don't think so.  Just like it's impossible to spoil an abstract expressionist's painting by explaining what you think someone else should look for in it, The Tree of Life is an existential expressionist film and telling about the images shown and scenes depicted is no way similar to saying "Keven Spacey is Keyser Söze" more ways than one...there is no plot.  There are events that unfold.  Personalities are revealed.  Characters interact.  But everything important to understanding the film goes on in the viewer's mind.  The various beliefs and multitude of experiences you bring to the theater—impacts what the film means.  To you.

          Riddles and panoramic images of the massively huge and the insanely tiny (some of the CGI = low Discovery-Channel quality) are interspersed with day-in-the-life scenes from middle America, half a century ago.  The target audience for this film are those who can relate, personally, with white, middle-class, small town life before the era of The Beatles/Vietnam/Woodstock et. al. (viewers who are not Caucasian, or never lived in a small town, or were not middle class, or are not—currently—older than 40...will probably dislike/not understand this film).

          I've read a few reviews of this film; there are some common threads.

          Many critics focus on the father's (Pitt's) stern attitude and behavior.  Some use the term abusive; others soften their label and write: borderline abusive.  No matter.  What's important is they're all unable to keep their personal beliefs out of their reviews.  It is that kind of film.  It forces you to focus on and evaluate your personal beliefs.  (If I were to allow personal beliefs to enter mine, I'd write: the little deviant, back-talking, miscreants deserved more punishment than they got and their mindless moronic mother needed something to force her head out of the clouds.)

          Also, the vast majority of those who dislike/don't understand this film use the word pretentious in their reviews (seems to be the go-to word of the proudly and willfully ignorant).  If you're not a fan of art-house films as well as recent Palm D'Or winners (e.g. The White Ribbon, 2009; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007; Dancer in the Dark, 2000) don't let slick marketing (Pitt and Penn!) convince you to see this one.  In the future, ask someone you trust to be your film umpire.  If you do see a film you don't understand, don't be petulant...just admit it was beyond your grasp.     

          I haven't seen many abstract fiction films (Ingmar Bergman's come to mind; I don't understand them at all) but I give this one four stars because it's unique and, even though I can't say I understood all of it, I liked/like thinking about what it caused me to contemplate.

          Those avid filmophiles who see hundreds of films a year will be entertained by its originality.  Every year there are so many films which are almost immediately forgettable; this film is anything but.

More on my film criticism:

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