Every weekday from now until the Oscar ceremony we'll be running a For Your Consideration piece on behalf of every Best Picture nominee, arguing why it deserves its nomination or even a win, arguing why it's important, or even pointing out why it doesn't belong at the Oscars at all. Here is Mack with a personal argument against The Tree of Life.
Somewhere deep inside The Tree Of Life’s one hundred and thirty-nine minute runtime, there exists a good movie about a father unable or unwilling to connect with his children. Featuring great performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, it’s an affecting snapshot of 1950s suburban detachment. Bookended around that story and occasionally bisecting it however, there exists an entirely separate narrative in which barely audible narration confusingly whispers atop extended scenes of dinosaurs, exploding stars and Sean Penn’s grizzled mug contemplating nature.
I’ve been told by people I respect that these seemingly disjointed narratives operate in conjunctive harmony to illustrate the fork between nature and grace that we all must take. Maybe so. Maybe when viewed from the right angle, the puzzle pieces all really do fit together to create a masterwork. That analysis would certainly explain the eighty-four percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the Best Picture nomination.
But then again, maybe there really is nothing to get. Maybe all the critics who have so vehemently backed The Tree Of Life are simply assigning value to weirdness and deeper meaning to idiotic, pretentious ramblings. Maybe the careful and well-constructed core of this Best Picture nominee is not actually buoyed by its elongated natural backdrops but instead coated in layer after layer of supernova-scented shit. Maybe this movie actually makes no goddamn sense and we should all admit what’s painfully obvious: The Tree Of Life is a fucking mess.
All of the scenes with Sean Penn are pointless and off-putting. If you don’t believe me, ask Sean Penn. He still has no idea why the hell he was even in the movie. I don’t get his presence either. More often than not, he looks like a hungover Anthony Bourdain in between takes of No Reservations. Starring at rocks, at elevators, out windows and if I remember correctly, through long blades of grass, he just mopes around, at least when he’s actually shown, which is rarely. If you’ve got one of the best actors in the world, use him. More importantly, if you’ve got a character you periodically cut to, give him something to do, anything to endear him to the audience. I know with a runtime of roughly two and a half hours, a few added scenes might not have gone over well, but let’s be honest, there’s plenty of other places where big chunks could have been cut.
Like, for example, the forty-five minutes or so we spend in space watching the planet develop. I get trying to convey that the characters’ lives are reminiscent of or controlled by much grander forces, but you don’t need to apportion a huge chunk of time to get that across. I’m pretty sure we could have gotten that in five minutes. The same logic holds for those damn dinosaurs too. The Tree Of Life is probably the only movie in history that has the wrong percentage of dinosaurs. Either make them a legitimate part of the movie or don’t fucking include them at all. As is, they’re shoehorned in simply to show a predator having second thoughts about killing his prey, and I guess to depict one more segment of the universe’s history.
Prettiness for its own sake, of course, can be wonderful. If all of the above scenes were run back-to-back on the Science Channel, I might even consider watching them. Unfortunately, they weren’t created as an informative and beautiful documentary. They’re meant to co-exist with characters we’re supposed to humanize and relate to, and all this bullshit does is break up the momentum and reduce the overall effect. Every time Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain really get in the zone, The Tree Of Life flutters away to an astrology seminar or another three minutes of Sean Penn contemplating real hard. Just because something’s fascinating doesn’t mean it’s relevant or germane to the rest of the presentation, and just because something is weird doesn’t mean it’s inherently better. There’s something to be said for staying on topic, and even more to be said for allowing your characters to deliver the message without extraneous nonsense that’s only vaguely relevant.
If you’ve never seen The Tree Of Life before, go watch it. You deserve to know it exists. Individual moments contained within its runtime really do deserve to be seen. But when you start coming across filmmaking decisions that don’t make any goddamn sense, don’t assume you missed something. Don’t buy into the overeducated, hipster party line that strangeness is inherently better. If that were true, Joakim Noah would shoot free throws at a higher percentage than Larry Bird, Jim Furyk would have more majors than Phil Mickelson and Wylie Dufresne would have won Top Chef Masters.
I appreciate The Tree Of Life for trying something different. I really do. I wish more movies took chances, but all that effort doesn’t change the fact that The Tree Of Life would have been better served putting down the bedazzling gun and leaving its primary story in tact. As it’s presented, it’s an over-edited, over-thought and confusing mess that never should have been nominated ahead of Ides Of March, 50/50, Young Adult, Drive or even Bridesmaids. In their relative normalcy, each achieves far more than The Tree Of Life.
There’s no maybe about it.
For more arguments for and against this year's Oscar nominees, go right HERE.