Polarizing ‘ Tree of Life’ deserves its nominations
Acurious thing happened when The Tree of Life opened at the Dallas Angelika in June. In screening after screening, as a portion of the audience sat rapt at Terrence Malick’s meditation on man’s relationship with God and nature, small pockets of the theater snickered and guffawed.
Walkouts were common. I received letters questioning my sanity for giving the film an A-minus; one correspondent claimed The Tree of Life was the worst movie he had ever seen in a theater.
The gigglers and naysayers were doubtless among those taken aback when the Academy of Motion Pic- tures Arts and Sciences tabbed Tree as one of nine nominees for best picture. They weren’t alone.
Most of the Academy’s odd choices fall more along the lines of another best picture nominee, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: sentimental, treacly, shamelessly promot-
ed into award season. Remember Chocolat, a best picture nominee in 2000? Or, more famously, Forrest Gump, the big winner from 1994?
The Tree of Life, by contrast, is as close to an art film as many viewers are likely to get. Any movie that stops for a gorgeous, 15minute creation-of-the-universe sequence is clearly playing by its own rules. As mad as they made me at the time, I can’t find too much fault with those tittering audience members. Laughter is one of the first responses to anything that defies your expectations and reference points.
So how did Tree, also nominated for Malick’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush cinematography, crash Hollywood’s big shindig? Let’s start with the simple explanation: It’s a great film, deeply spiritual with moments of pure visual ecstasy. It’s not a movie that rewards anyone looking for a quick “What’s it about?” summary. (Short answer: a family in the 1950s Waco of Malick’s boyhood. Longer answer: Grace, a series of conversations with God, the loss of innocence, a boy’s relationship with his parents, the Big Bang and dinosaurs.)
There’s also the Brad Pitt factor. By now Pitt, nominated for his performance in Moneyball, is a favorite son of Hollywood. He’s possibly even better in Tree, which he also helped produce, than in Moneyball. He gives shape and texture to a character that comes off as an abstraction on the page. He makes you feel the disappointment of a father and husband who never accomplished what he wanted, and the mix of love and severity that drives his oldest son against him is heartbreaking.
Pitt will obviously show up at the Oscars. Malick most certainly will not. He’s like a mythical creature that comes down from the mountains of his mind every several years to make a movie (though he appears to have two more on the way in the near future, an unprecedented burst of visibility for him). He has no use for awards shows. His reclusiveness and obsessive artistry, as well as the sanctity of imagery in his films, bring to mind the late Stanley Kubrick, who was so repelled by the Hollywood hive that he chose to spend most of his career in England.
It’s fruitless to speak of the Academy as some monolithic body with uniform taste. Hollywood is a creative community of many members. The fact that Tree and Extremely Loud are vying for the same award bears this out. But when its filmmakers look in the mirror, I have a feeling they want to imagine a little bit of Malick staring back, the uncompromising and uncompromised artist who does it his way, the suits be damned. He brings gravitas to the party, even while he stays home as the awards are dished out.
Good on the Academy for not holding that against him. By recognizing Malick and his work, the Oscars show that, every once in a while, they’re capable of making a bold decision.
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Brad Pitt is better in Tree of Life than Moneyball, for which he’s a best actor nominee.