'Red State,' 'Tree': Pacing matters

September 19, 2011

As an avid runner, I cannot count how many times I have witnessed amped-up racers charging out of the gate in a blaze, only to later pass them as they sluggishly shuffle, clutching their sides or hanging their heads in frustration.

In races, as in film, pacing matters.

There are two films from esteemed directors that had received much ballyhoo earlier this year, but have since faded from view and will be seen by most on DVD when they premiere in October. The reason both failed to gain any momentum had little to do with the films' quality, but almost everything to do with their erratic structure.

This is a shame, because these two wildly disparate films certainly have much to say and are worthy of viewing, if only as a curiosity. They would be Kevin Smith's departure "Red State," and Terrence Malick's existential "The Tree of Life."

“Red State”
"Red State" begins like a hillbilly "Hostel," in which a group of sex-starved teens head to a remote mobile home on the promise of satiating their urges. The hot-blooded vulgarians are certainly not out of place in a Smith film. They are, in fact, the cornerstone of much of his oeuvre ("Clerks," "Mallrats," "Chasing Amy").

When the trailer park tryst turns sour, they find themselves in the bowels of a church not unlike that of the infamous Westboro Baptist (i.e., the church that pickets soldiers' funerals). The head of this crazed clan is Abin Cooper (played with the necessary fire and brimstone by Michael Parks), whose podium-pounding soliloquies are laced with equal parts sugar and strychnine. The distinction between Westboro's Phelps clan and Cooper's paltry followers is the latter is equipped to seal its hate-filled message with bullets. Lots of them.

When the service escalates into a hostage situation, the ATF is called in and the film pivots and turns in a new direction. It is here we are introduced to Keenan, John Goodman's conflicted G-man character, who’s afraid to turn the whole thing into another Waco-like incident. Though he receives direct orders to kill from top brass, he's having difficulty following through when many young parishioners are in the crosshairs.

The film boils down to two men - Keenan and Cooper - who are apparently receiving higher orders to execute. "Red State" doesn't paint the Cooper clan strictly as cardboard zealots, though we never do learn their true motivation nor their allegiance to their patriarch. More time with Keenan before he's brought into battle would have also aided the film and our understanding of his internal conflict.

Too often, though, "Red State" stalls everything so that we can hear long speechifying from our leads. This tell-don't-show approach may work when Smith's characters are cramped inside a video store or coffee shop, but it's deadly in a film more reliant on action. Smith has much to say, and this is his most technically accomplished film to date, but he chooses all the wrong times to say it.

“The Tree of Life”

Long stretches of dialogue are certainly not an issue in Malick's "The Tree of Life," which floats along with random exchanges and voiceovers from its various characters. It's the latest meditative stretch of celluloid from a filmmaker known for preponderance (some say pretentious ness), and it is certainly not one that is going to connect with a casual filmgoer, despite the presence of stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

The enigmatic director is often showered with praise for his films when he decides to direct (this is only his fifth film since 1973), and this one won the Palme d'Or at this year's prestigious Cannes Film Festival. But even for lovers of art films, "Tree of Life" is an endurance test. Sure, there are plenty of pretty pictures to look at along the way (as is common with the director), but this loosely told tale of a Texas family in the 1950s and the effects of an authoritarian father (played by Pitt) on one of his sons (played by Penn as an adult) does not take an easy narrative route.

Long stretches are devoted to seemingly inconsequential actions, such as a drink from a backyard hose, a run through a field, dinosaurs (you read that right) that are perhaps meaningful to the director, but don't help us out one bit.

Scene after scene is obviously shot with precision and expertise, making even the drabbest Midwestern backyard burst with texture and beauty. It all makes for a great slideshow, but a frustrating feature. Though Penn shares above-the-title credit, his character is really but a footnote. And Pitt, all glower and pensive posturing, does not really have room to reveal his range.

It appears Malick's intention is a rumination on the meaning of life. No small feat, indeed. But whatever he's sought or found is lost in this random collage of sight and sound that is of little invitation to the viewer. It's all punctuated with long pauses of dialogue-free shots that have meaning only to the man behind the lens.

And even though the picture goes syrup slow through its images, it still manages to leave its audience in the dust.

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