Battle of the Polarizing Films: Drive (2011) vs The Tree of Life (2011)

November 13, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

It’s November and I still haven’t finished reviewing my list of 2011 films. So here’s another film battle — this time,  between two of the most polarizing films of last year — Drive and The Tree of Life. I thought one of these films was amazing, and the other boring and pretentious — but can you guess which is which?

Drive (2011)

I had heard some mixed reviews of this Ryan Gosling neo-noir crime drama. Some said it was slow and boring and too violent for its own good. Others said it was one of the best films of the year.

The story follows Gosling’s unnamed lead character, who works as a mechanic by day and a getaway driver for criminals at night. You don’t know much about his past or background, but all you know is that he is one heck of a driver who can stay calm under the tensest of situations and a badass you wouldn’t want to mess with. He befriends a neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, and her young son, whose father is in prison and owes protection money to the mob.

It’s a simple story driven by a fascinating character and a sublime performance from Gosling, who seems to be unable to do anything wrong these days. It’s also boosted by a superb all-star cast, including the omnipresent Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks.

With the exception of Mulligan, who gives a good performance but feels miscast in the role, I loved everything about this riveting film, which had been hooked and on the edge of my seat from the opening sequence — which is, might I add, one of the best of any movie ever. I loved the tension and I loved the mystery of Gosling’s character — the calmer he was the more nervous I got. And I don’t often notice the soundtrack but this one’s was rocking — the ethereal-electronic-pop-dominated score was perfect for the look, style and feel of the film. (For some reason it reminded me a little of the video game Grand Theft Auto!)

As for the violence, yeah, it might have been a little excessive (elevator scene, anyone?) but I thought it fit in well with the overall tone and added an edge to the tension. I’ve always been a fan of well-executed violence (thanks, Tarantino), and I suppose this is a great example of it.

One of the best, and potentially one of the most memorable, films of the year for me.

5 stars out of 5

The Tree of Life (2011)

The buzz around The Tree of Life before I watched it was that it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking that cements his place in cinematic history as one of the best directors of all time. But word of mouth from relatives was that it was so confusing and boring that walking out would have been a better option than staying until the end.

My previous experiences when it comes to Terrence Malick have not been positive. I remember when people were calling The Thin Red Line a vastly superior film to Saving Private Ryan and decided to check it out, but had too much trouble trying to decipher all of Nick Nolte’s mumbling to really understand what the fuss was all about. Then I watched his next effort, The New World with Colin Farrell, but I gave up on it about 20 minutes in after, again, failing to get through all the mumbling voice-overs. What’s this guy’s deal with incomprehensible philosophical mumblings?

Anyway, I thought as a more mature movie viewer, I would now be more capable of appreciating Malick’s art. But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. The Tree of Life had its fair share of mumblings as well, but that wasn’t its problem. Its problem was trying too hard to be “profound”, to be “different”, to be a “masterpiece.”

Essentially, this “experimental” film follows a middle-aged man’s (Sean Penn) memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950s with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), but at the same time it is also supposed to be some chronicle of the history of the universe that explores the meaning of life.

I don’t have a problem with ambitious projects, which this clearly is, but I suppose you need to be in the right kind of mood to enjoy The Tree of Life (ie, high on LSD or something). If you’re expecting a linear narrative with a clear story to tell, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if you’re expecting a movie to suddenly turn into the National Geographic channel and show the images cosmos and dinosaurs and asteroids, and feel that it explains what life is all about, then you’ll probably love The Tree of Life.

I do appreciate the artistic merits of the film to some extent, as well as the beautiful images of nature that Malick projects onto the screen. The scenes depicting the children and their relationship with their father are also done well and occasionally stirring. In that sense I guess I don’t despise The Tree of Life like some others do, but at almost 140-minutes it was just too much to take and digest. Frankly, I was often bored and frustrated.

Maybe I’ll have more luck with Malick’s next film, To the Wonder, a romantic drama starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. I heard people booed laughed at it during the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

2 stars out of 5!