Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life - *1/2

Directed by: Terrance Malick

Starring:  Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

Review:  This is going to go down as one of the most divisive movies of all time.  There are those that will revel in its supposed brilliance, those that won’t understand it, and those that will understand but will be turned off by its pretentiousness.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to clearly put myself in the third category.

There have been lots of directors over the years who have aimed for the stars with their films.  Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind, as does Frank Capra’s work with It’s a Wonderful Life.  Both those movies were reviled critically upon their release, but years later found their way into the discussions of “classics” and “masterpieces.”  That may end up happening with Tree of Life, it may not.  Who knows, maybe my opinion of this will change with time.  It is not a new phenomenon for this to happen with movies.  Yet currently, I find myself unimpressed.

The first hour or so of the movie is hardly even bearable to sit through.  Random montage scenes with ominously recorded whisper voiceovers lead to a roughly 30 minute showing of random nature and astronomical shots.  At one point we see the Loch Ness monster who is hurt from an apparent attack.   Then we see some dinosaurs trying to make their way in the world.  It’s all a reference to where we sit in the universe.  It’s supposed to evoke our wonderment for how large our universe is and to understand our place in the way of things.  It comes off as a pretentious, arrogant, philosophical rambling of somebody who is so revered as a genius nobody can tell him “no this is pretentious and stupid.”

Malick may have been shooting for the grand scale of the 2001 "Star Child" sequence that made that movie so famous.  Instead, he just came off as a cocky filmmaker.  After this self-indulgent fantasy is over with, we are finally treated to a movie with some narrative force behind it.

At the beginning, before all the space shots, we are introduced to Sean Penn’s character.  We are also introduced to a family with a father (Pitt), a mother (Chastain), and three sons.  It is clear that Penn is supposed to be one of the grown up sons.  Which one, we are not sure from the start.  Eventually we see that one of the three brothers dies, we are assuming during the Vietnam war.

This ripples through the family.  The mother and father are all stricken with immediate shock and grief.  When it flashes forward to Penn in his current life, we see that he is preoccupied with thoughts of his brother.  Why exactly this day of all days he is thinking about his brother is not certain.

Through this we are then treated to a flashback of a year’s worth of his childhood.  It is here where the real meat of the movie takes place.  It begins to be revealed how this child and family developed.  Their hardnosed father domineered over the family.  He enforced strict rules and demanded perfection from his children.  He was hardest on the oldest child, which eventually became Penn in his older age.

It has been said that Malick is trying to describe the meaning of life through his work on this film.  Through showing his random shots of nature and the path of the Earth, he is paralleling it with the development of a child and his life/path to becoming a man. 

I don’t know that I quite see it the same way that most do.  I don’t look at this film as one that is trying to ascribe answers to the meaning of life.  Rather, it appears to me that this film is simply showing us how we all derive our own meaning of life through our own experiences.  Life is a random event in a cosmic sense, but our interpretation of events and what goes on around us is not random at all.  This is what makes us who we are and what leads us all to draw our own conclusions about the meaning of everything.  Perhaps that's the point, that there is not strict "meaning of life" but that it's different for all of us.  

There are many moments in this film, especially within the first hour, that feel like art.  Art in the sense of the static paintings or portraits you would see in a standard museum type of art.  While I have an appreciation for photographic, drawn, or painted art, I don’t have the reverence for it that most do.  There is a stark contrast for me when looking at static images or moving film.  I feel as though moving film is able to provide a greater insight into our human emotions.  Many people out there can be affected emotionally by a photo or a painting.  I am not affected in that same way.  Film is the medium that is able to capture and display emotions on a greater level for me.

Some of the scenes in this movie feel like those static pictures to me.  It’s as if these are supposed to be moving interpretations of still images.  With no context to the early parts of the movies, they seem as though they are slightly fancier versions of non-moving pictures.  There is no evocation of emotion.  Where pictures are supposed to be worth a 1,000 words, moving pictures without much in the way of context are not worth many words at all.

This is the ultimate downfall of the film.  While it is unbelievably beautiful to look at, it lacks much in the way of substance and context.  There is about 45 minutes of this film with a strong narrative feel that provides the viewer with an excellent experiencex  That part of the film is extremely engrossing and entertaining.  When it’s good, this film is incredibly good.  When it’s bad, this film is very bad.  The arrogance of the director plays a great part in this.  There is a high level of pretention involved here.  If you strip away of that, there is a great film in here.  Unfortunately, with this film, you can’t strip it away.  All that you are left with in this film that is incredibly hard to sit through.

Ultimately, this film is not worth your time.


  1. Heartily disagree. To each his own though, and this is a divisive film.

  2. To each their own indeed. I will say there is about 45 minutes of this film that is brilliant and has a real strong voice. Unfortunately, it can't save the other 2 hours of nonsense that Malick decides to put in here.

  3. It's not nearly as nonsensical as you're making it out to be. It's certainly abstract and heavily symbolical while eschewing an even remotely straight-forward narrative. It also seems as though you are assuming that Malick is being so bold as to explain the meaning of life in this film. I'd hardly qualify what he's doing here as explaining the meaning of life. That's what would have happened if Spielberg was trying to make this movie. Malick certainly wants to get to the essence of the human experience, but I don't think he's being so obtuse as to say, "No, this is what life is." He puts his work out there and allows the viewer to draw his/her own conclusion/meaning from the film.

  4. This movie gets better the more I think about it. As a visceral, artful experience, it's great. Part of the negativity of this review was related to my anger after having just seen the movie. My problem lies his ambition. He is trying to have this grandiose scope by showing all of the universe, and then parallel it to one small aspect: the life of one man.

    Your comment about Speilberg is accurate, but I feel that can be his greatest strength. Spielberg has an ability unlike any other to draw the audience in and make them care. That usually means a lot of explanation. Sometimes it can be too much, but when he gets it right (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Jaws, E.T.), it's really right.

    My issue with Malick is not in abstract storytelling. I often like such a thing and can appreciate it. My problem lies in Malick having these conflicting parallels. In order to appreciate the story of the family do I need to see dinosaurs and the loch ness monster? No, I don't. Abstraction as an art form can still draw people in. With seemingly two largely different parts of this movie Malick tries to parallel, he disconnects his audience.

    I understand he's not trying to make the audience care about the characters like Spielberg, but you don't have to care about characters to be drawn in by them or a story. With the way Malick chose to structure this, it's hard to get drawn for any more than 45 mins at most. Ultimately, that is where my big issue comes into play.