“The Tree Of Life” (2011) Written & Directed by Terence Mallick

What constitutes a masterpiece?  What quality or aspect grants certain works special status, a place in the pantheon, among the immortals?

Originality, certainly; also the scope of the creator’s ambition, their aesthetic fearlessness and uncompromising vision.  A masterpiece can be flawed but it can’t be timid.  Great works of art are human-made, incapable of perfection; but they somehow burst from their finite limitations and achieve an elemental and spiritual power that is talismanic, other-worldly.

Terence Mallick’s latest film, “The Tree of Life”, definitely qualifies as a magnum opus, a cinematic tour de force.  It is visually arresting, each shot framed with the utmost regard for composition, the right thing in the right place.  A vignette lasting a few moments imbued with enormous significance, lit and dressed and colored for maximum effect.  Scene after scene of scrupulously crafted images, painstakingly arranged.  The cumulative result is a tad wearying, to be honest, especially for a film that clocks in at two hours plus.

I have some reservations with the movie, I guess you can tell.  Masterpiece?  Close, but no cigar.  I saw faults that, to my mind, diminished the impact of “The Tree of Life”, aesthetic oversights that detracted from what might have been the most thematically and stylistically demanding film of the past decade.

I thought Brad Pitt was terribly miscast—the part of “Mr. O’Brien” would have been better served by someone like John C. Reilly.  O’Brien is a little man, a failure, trying to prevent his sons from ending up like him. Pitt is far too attractive and charming for the role; a Willy Loman he’s not.  Jessica Chastain, on the other hand, is marvelous, natural and unaffected, the real star of the show.  Kudos, as well, to two young actors, Hunter McCracken and  Tye Sheridan, who hold their own on-screen with some big-time talent.

The comparisons with “2001: A Space Odyssey” are inevitable and actually help illustrate my two main problems with “The Tree of Life”.

“2001” is a masterpiece because it manages something Mallick’s film doesn’t:  cohesion.  From the first frame to the last, Kubrick’s take on man’s evolution to the threshold of the stars, our species’ “Omega point” (Tielhard de Chardin), never strays from its central theme.  Even its mind-blowing finale, once viewed and absorbed, seems logical and entirely suitable to the narrative framework.

The ending of “The Tree of Life” (spoiler alert)  lacks the synthesis Mallick was undoubtedly seeking; in its absence, we get a jumble of symbols, cosmic snapshots and dreamy voice-overs.  There’s none of the transcendence one finds in the closing moments of “2001”, the sense that one has been on a a long, difficult journey but now a far shore is in sight.  Instead, Mallick leaves his characters literally stranded on a featureless beach, surrounded by familiar strangers, curious why the Master couldn’t have concocted a better denouement or, at the very least, devised a more interesting place to abandon them.

ΩΩΩΩ (Out of 5)

About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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