If I can prevent just one person from watching this, it’ll have been worth suffering through it.
After an opening sequence of scenes flashing between past and modern times, the story is interrupted by the barely audible questioning of God, something that becomes a running theme and occurs at completely random intervals throughout the film. This first instance triggers a breathtaking, Discovery Channel-worthy “Creation of the Universe” sequence (almost sixteen minutes long) complete with a shot of a beached Nessie and Darwinian evolutionary jumps (none of which seem to have anything to do with the random jumble of info provided at the opening). Following this is a montage of family film clips, extreme point-of-view shots, and dramatic orchestra music. Finally, fifty minutes in, something resembling a narrative begins at the dinner table with Big Daddy Pitt in his Waco, Texas home… no, wait, now we’re in an airplane (sigh). We learn in Sunday school that everything dies while Big Daddy Pitt says “You can’t be too good in this life, and you can’t say ‘I can’t.'” Enter the long-haired brunette schoolgirl, a drowning, Snow White in a glass coffin, and (finally!) something interesting: ‘tweenage rebellion and defiance. Sean Penn at last reappears (at the two-hour mark!) in a suit… in the desert. No, wait… back to space. People from every era of the film appear together while wandering aimlessly at the beach. There are doors, masks, sunflowers, and water… lots of life-giving, boring water. The end. No, really.
Incredible cinematography? Check. Beautiful soundtrack? Check. Narrative? You won’t find any such thing ’round these parts. There’s been little secret that Terrence Malick isn’t among my favorite directors. One of the most meaningless, wasteful films I’ve ever reviewed, The Thin Red Line, has stood as this reviewer’s all-time least recommended film. With the hype and awards for his newest creation, The Tree of Life, I had hoped that the reclusive yet inexplicably celebrated auteur might have crafted something, well, watchable. Congratulations, Mr. Malick; you’ve topped yourself and my every expectation, and The Thin Red Line must be relegated to my second least recommended film of all time.
Brad Pitt does a fine job as “dad” (or “father” or whatever his name was), but Sean Penn couldn’t have had more than three actual minutes of screen time. And for the record, a boy’s inner monologue (circa 1960) would in no way sound like Yoda (“Wrestle inside me mother and father does! Always you will!”) If you must watch any portion of this film, start twenty minutes in, enjoy the amazing CGI creation of our solar system, laugh at the raptor that passes up a free meal, then PLEASE stop at the thirty-six minute mark and try to ignore the one-to-three word whispered narrations (because watching the rest of the film doesn’t help them make any more sense).
(a zero skull recommendation out of four)
Addendum: I’d like to make a point of clarification about the above review (and some of the comments I’ve heard since posting it).
This is not “the worst film of all time” in my book; it is, however, as of this writing, my least recommended… ever. The distinction is this: this film was made by one person specifically for one person and can only be the product of much soul-searching and intense introspection. It should be viewed by that one person and only by that person, sitting alone in the middle of an empty theater like a widower watching old home movies and reminiscing of days gone by. If I was Terrence Malick reviewing my own film, I would champion it as the accomplishment of a lifetime… but I’m not, and neither is anyone else. This is like one of those elaborate music videos (featuring camels that had to be procured after midnight) that Kevin Smith says Prince makes for his own personal collection that will never be shown to anyone until long after his death (unless he mandated that they be buried with him).
I’ve since heard that it took years to put this production together and that many months of that were spent just finding the right boys to play the three brothers (although you could have found those three, many times over, out hunting with their with their dads in any West “By God” Virginia woodlands during deer season). If I am wrong, if this wasn’t an introspection into the formative years of Mr. Malick and a personal goal finally accomplished, then you should be more afraid of what subliminal mind alterations were the true intent of this mad, mad auteur.