Tree of Life Owes Everything to Bill Paxton

Terrence Malick’s long-awaited wank-a-thon Tree of Life has been in select theaters for a few weeks now and will be getting a nationwide boost on July 8. As I’m writing this it’s 86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I saw it last Sunday and while I thought it was a stunning visual orgy, it didn’t really do much else for me. Especially Sean Penn. He’s one of my favorite dudes ever but his bits in the movie were pointless and his whole beach scene near the end is by far the cheesiest scene of 2011.

I’m not here to knock the enigmatic Malick or his new movie though. You should go see it in the theater if you have the chance. You’ll never see another film like it, that’s a Malick guarantee! But the movie got me and my girl thinking about another film. A similar yet superior film from a decade ago: Frailty. Directed by Bill Goddamn Paxton and written by Brent Hanley (who wrote the “Family” episode of Masters of Horror), Frailty is a southern-fried gothic thriller in which a fanatic father (Paxton) has visions that drive him to seek and kill “demons,” bringing his two young sons along for the ride. I admit, comparing these two films is like trying to draw concrete comparisons between The Wire and Everybody Loves Raymond, but Malick and Paxton’s tales of the south have more in common than you think. I might even smell some plagiarism…

Quotes from the Bible precede both films: TOL with one from Job and Frailty with one from the less pretentious book of Isaac. Both films take place in small towns in Texas in the past – Tree of Life in the ’50s, Frailty in 1979 (the date of Frailty is only revealed when the kids are arguing over whether to go see Meatballs or The Warriors). While the bulk of both films take place in their respective pasts, they’re both bookended with scenes of the present. This is where TOL contains its lifeless Sean Penn segments that drag the film into the mire. But Frailty‘s present timeline features a chilling Matthew McConaughey in his only watchable role. This actually isn’t fair to say since I haven’t seen The Lincoln Lawyer – he might be good in that. While Frailty‘s beginning and end actually add to the film’s story, TOL‘s made me squirm in my seat. Watching Penn loaf around the desert in a suit is not as titillating as it sounds.

Setting a movie about Texans in Texas means you’re going to need accents. In TOL, only the oldest son inexplicably has a drawl. Just ONE. Not even Brad Pitt (the father) or Jessica Chastain (the mother) have a hint of an accent. Your parents don’t have one, where’d you get that accent, kiddo? The main characters in Frailty, however, speak in perfect accents because they’re actually from Texas. BAM! Paxton, McConaughey, and Powers Boothe are all Texas-born; bringing an uncanny realism Malick can only strive for. The child actors in Frailty are not from Texas, but speak with believable accents. Briefly, while I’m on this note about the kids, there are three sons in TOL. Me and my girl only thought there were two. Apparently we missed the existence of an entire character.

Brad Pitt’s father character in TOL is a failed musician who has settled for playing the organ at his church. He’s a very religious man who demands that his kids respect him. He forces the oldest Jack to perform tedious chores like pulling weeds and watering dead parts of the lawn. He’s got a short fuse and once it’s lit, the punishments rain down. Punishments like being locked in the closet for a few minutes and opening and closing the screen door 50 times in a row (quietly).

In Frailty, Bill Paxton is also a highly religious father. But unlike Pitt, he loves his kids to death and is constantly verbalizing his affection. Pitt just lazily kisses his kids’ foreheads once in a while. Paxton loves his spawn like a boss. As far as pitching in around the house, Paxton is a little more demanding in his chores. He makes his eldest son Fenton dig a 15′ x 15′ hole in the backyard. And when Fenton rebels against his father’s righteous killing spree, Paxton locks him in the shed’s basement (the murder room) for something like three days. Paxton kills for his god – Pitt plays the organ.

Speaking of God, he’s a lot more direct in Frailty. One of his angels visits Paxton in a vision and sets him on his wrathful mission. In TOL, young and old Jack are constantly whispering to God, asking him questions about faith, life, and his whereabouts. God chooses to ignore the morose Penn while focusing all of his earthly efforts on Paxton. Murdering demons is way more important than the trite inquiries of Penn.

There’s a great scene in TOL in which Pitt is giving his kids an amateur boxing lesson. He shows them how to stick and move and then asks, pleads, for them to hit him. Boxing is cool and all, but murder is way more effective. Especially with a holy axe named OTIS. Paxton teaches his kids how to spot demons, capture, kill, and conceal. I’d take that over “hit me in the face” any day.

Fenton, the eldest son in Frailty, finds himself at odds with his father’s holy mission. His internal struggle causes rifts in the family, especially between him and his younger brother Adam. Fenton acts out against his father, which breaks his father’s heart. The eldest son in TOL, Jack, also contends with his father’s worldview and constantly seeks for answers. Fenton, however, follows his gut and puts an end to the whole “Hand of God” things. Jack just goes up to be Sean Penn.

Case closed in my opinion. Malick stole the entire idea of TOL from Frailty, then added CGI and dinosaurs to the mix. What a hack! He also took out the whole murder thing, but still…it’s a ripoff. An inferior ripoff. Nowhere in TOL‘s credits is Bill Paxton or writer Brent Hanley thanked. In a perfect world, before the biblical quote that opens TOL, the screen would read “Inspired by Frailty” or “Thanks, Bill Paxton.” But sadly, Malick is getting away with blatantly biting a better film. He may be laughing now while he prances around his secret bunker stuffed with philosophy texts, but no one can escape the wrath of OTIS for long. It’s God’s will.

This thought-provoking piece originally appeared on the Mishka Bloglin.