The Tree of Life

Movie Information

The Story: Sprawling drama that runs the gamut from creation to a look at a single family. The Lowdown: A fascinating film that works part of the time, doesn't work part of the time, and is at least interesting all of the time. Beware of a non-traditional narrative structure, a deliberate pace and no payoff in the traditional sense.
Score:

Genre: Deep-dish Drama à la Malick
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler
Rated: PG-13

Is it profound or pretentious? Is it art or twaddle? Is it one of the cinematic events of the year or a pompous bore? The answer to all that is really “yes.” Which is to say that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is profound, pretentious, art, twaddle, a cinematic event and a pompous bore all packed into 138-overlong minutes. And, in its own way, it’s a must-see. Even the things that are “wrong” with it are worth seeing. I hate the term “self-indulgent,” simply because I think all art is self-indulgent to one degree or another, but it seems inescapable here. And yet, the fact that The Tree of Life is self-indulgent is essential to its very being, so I’m not really using the term pejoratively.

There is no point in trying to synopsize the film. It has a kind of narrative, but it’s the narrative of memory—and probably imperfect memory at that. The film has the idea of taking the viewer—not always in an orderly fashion—from the moment of the creation of the universe to a point of observing a Texas family (mostly at some point in the mid-1950s) that feels a lot like the filmmaker’s own memories of childhood, then all the way through what can be called, I suppose, The Meaning of it All, and then back into the infinity of the void. That’s a heady concept. When it works, it works brilliantly. When it doesn’t work, it fails quite spectacularly.

The trick is that I strongly suspect what works and what fails will differ from viewer to viewer. And there will be viewers who will quite simply hate The Tree of Life altogether. This has already happened at one theater in Connecticut at least. Patrons were so outraged by the film that the theater managers and staff found themselves on the receiving end of abusive complaints from angry customers. That not only seems excessive to me, it suggests something more than disatisfaction over a “bad” movie. It suggests that something about the film—not boredom or incoherence—deeply disturbed these patrons in ways they may not themselves be clear on.

I freely admit that many things in the film simply don’t work for me. The whole creation of the universe business doesn’t really come together as either breathtaking wonderment or dramatic event. It feels like an unwieldy combination of the “Star Ride” from Kubrick’s 2001 (1968)—minus the LSD-chrome—and the devolvement of Eddie Jessup to the moment of creation in Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) played backwards at slow speed. And it’s nowhere near as effective as either. The much-remarked-upon footage of dinosaurs didn’t do anything for me either, looking for all the world like something I might bump into on the Discovery Channel. Yet I don’t decry the inclusion of these things—partly because they’re essential to the continuum of Malick’s vision, and partly because I think Malick is entitled to his vision.

The film—for me—is on much firmer footing with its depiction of life in the 1950s. Is this because I can recall the time? Maybe. And I’ll certainly note that most of it feels authentic on a broad scale in ways that have nothing to do with specifics of Malick’s own memories. My own memories have nothing to do with siblings, a strict father or religion. Yet it felt right and—I think this is important—it never felt like a purely nostalgic wallow. Incomprehensible and unpleasant things happen—sometimes only as background or touches, sometimes as part of the story (such as the drowning scene brilliantly set to the opening of the Mahler First Symphony). This isn’t one of those “remember how great it was to grow up when” emails that seem to breed like rabbits. This is aware that childhood is not all safe, lazy summer days.

I could—if I had the room—go on about the film’s river and water imagery, the use of Smetana’s “The Moldau” on the soundtrack, the narrative experiments, the faux-Fellini moments etc., but the truth is that the only way you are ever going to get the feel of The Tree of Life is to see it for yourself. You may love it, you may hate it, but I doubt you will be indifferent to it. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

56 thoughts on “The Tree of Life

  1. Ken Hanke

    Well, if you really want to engage in an orgy of Philistinism, why draw the line there? Make it Transmoosers.

  2. davidf

    I could never have anticipated that Shia Labeouf would take over the Tree of Life thread. I suppose it provides the universe with a little bit of balance.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I could never have anticipated that Shia Labeouf would take over the Tree of Life thread. I suppose it provides the universe with a little bit of balance.

    I’m fascinated by the fact that no one has actually said a single thing about the film.

  4. I’m fascinated by the fact that no one has actually said a single thing about the film.

    What is there to say? The film speaks for itself.

  5. Ken Hanke

    What is there to say? The film speaks for itself.

    Oh, no, this is cocktail party material if ever there was such. This is just dying to be discussed in between Manhattans or sidecars. It’s a movie for people to prove either how intellectual they are, or how pretentious people who like it are.

  6. davidf

    I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see it, but I hope to catch up on that in the next couple of weeks.

  7. I guess I’m just not in the mood something this impenetrable-sounding at the moment. I just bought a DVD of HEIST in a sale and rewatched it and feel like watching more movies with exchanges like:

    DANNY DEVITO
    Don’t you want to hear my last words?

    GENE HACKMAN
    I just did.

    *bang*

  8. Ken Hanke

    I guess I’m just not in the mood something this impenetrable-sounding at the moment. I just bought a DVD of HEIST in a sale and rewatched it and feel like watching more movies with exchanges like

    While I am not a huge fan of Malick or of this type of movie, it often occurs to me — and this is by no means a criticism — that you’re really more interested in writing than in film.

  9. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate. I’d say I’m interested in writing separately from film and quality of dialogue is going to impact my enjoyment of a film more than it would to you.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate. I’d say I’m interested in writing separately from film and quality of dialogue is going to impact my enjoyment of a film more than it would to you.

    That’s kind of the same thing with different words. (Though interestingly, I had to refresh my memory of Heist, looked at my review, and saw I cited the same dialogue.) The thing is that there are movies that a dialogue oriented and movies that aren’t. One thing that’s notable to me, though, is that with the possible exception of Preston Sturges and movies written by friends, I have never seen a movie based on the writer.

  11. I’m getting asked about six times a day now if I have seen the film. I plan on catching it at some point next week.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I’m getting asked about six times a day now if I have seen the film. I plan on catching it at some point next week.

    It’s supposed to go wider on July 8 now, which probably means locally that The Carolina will get it.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Funny thing is I’ve only heard from one person who’s seen it and I didn’t get to discuss it — just him saying in passing that he loved it (which, frankly, surprised me). I saw it with Marci Miller, who at the time loved it (whether she’s cooled on it since then, I don’t know), the poster known as Tonberry, who was disappointed (but he’d really built it up in his mind), and someone else from the Fine Arts who bailed about 30 minutes in.

  14. Tonberry

    Tonberry, who was disappointed (but he’d really built it up in his mind)

    Yep, I was pretty hyped for it. Watching all of Malick’s work beforehand (will watch “Days of Heaven” after this posting) and seeing the trailer for this movie at every chance I got at the theatre. “The Thin Red Line” is my favorite Malick movie, “The New World” was actually a lot better than I thought it’d be (particularly the first half), and found “Badlands” interesting. I can definitely see the kind of influence it had on some of my favorite directors, yet for a large chunk of the movie I could only think “this is it?” I did end up liking “Badlands” at its end, but nowhere near loving it.

    So I was ready for “The Tree of Life,” I knew what I’d be getting into. Similar to “The New World,” I was more into the movie in its first half than its last (though the creation sequence is way too much, the Loch Ness monster cameo aside.) But I never found myself attached to anything or anyone in the movie. I watched the last half again the other day, to see if I felt any different about the film, and no, it just confirmed my main feeling about the movie: I want to like this, I should, but I just don’t.

    Just go out and see “Midnight in Paris” again.

  15. Ken Hanke

    it just confirmed my main feeling about the movie: I want to like this, I should, but I just don’t.

    Ironically, I probably like it better than you do. That may be due to diminished expectations.

    Just go out and see “Midnight in Paris” again

    That I cannot argue with.

  16. Tonberry

    As a side note, just finished “Days of Heaven” now that is Malick at his best.

  17. Tonberry

    Ironically, I probably like it better than you do. That may be due to diminished expectations.

    Ironically, I feel the same way about Shia LeBeouf.

  18. Me

    Hoping to check it out this weekend whats the chances i will have a good cry during it?

  19. Ken Hanke

    Ironically, I feel the same way about Shia LeBeouf.

    It is not possible for your expectations of Shia LaBeouf to be lower than mine.

  20. Ken Hanke

    Hoping to check it out this weekend whats the chances i will have a good cry during it?

    My guess is slim to none, but…did you get a good cry out of that 3 1/2 hour Belgian movie where the woman does housework in real time?

  21. Ken Hanke

    As a side note, just finished “Days of Heaven” now that is Malick at his best

    It’s gonna take a better sales pitch than that.

  22. Mike

    It’s gonna take a better sales pitch than that.

    It’s only 94 minutes long?

    Been about a decade since I last watched it but I remember liking it a lot, although not quite as much as Badlands. I am of the opinion that what Malick was doing was doing in his first two movies was pretty amazing and lacking in most of the qualities criticized by detractors of his last three.

  23. Ken Hanke

    It’s only 94 minutes long?

    That’s a start.

    I remember liking it a lot, although not quite as much as Badlands.

    There’s the rub — I didn’t like Badlands much.

  24. Lisa Watters

    I’m looking forward to seeing this. Interestingly I heard a story on NPR that up to 5% of people are walking out of showings at around the 25 minute mark – some even asking for their money back. One movie theatre has even put up a ‘warning’ stating that the movie doesn’t follow a traditional story line and that there will be no refunds.

  25. Ken Hanke

    I’m looking forward to seeing this. Interestingly I heard a story on NPR that up to 5% of people are walking out of showings at around the 25 minute mark – some even asking for their money back.

    Most theater chains will do refunds as long as it’s in the first half of the movie. The thing that’s been happening with Tree is people have been watching the whole movie and then asking for a refund.

  26. Jay

    Enjoyed reading all the above comments. I liked “Tree o’ Life” well enough, but could understand anyone not liking it at all. I preferred the non-human sections of the movie. The cruelty of the father, the passivity of the mother, the animal torturing of the kids; not my bag. I just decided with the visuals and music that I was watching a “Fantasia”-type movie and let it be (though it was not as enjoyable as “Fantasia”).

  27. Ken Hanke

    I liked “Tree o’ Life” well enough, but could understand anyone not liking it at all.

    That’s fair. I liked it, but I’d never really fight over it. It’s never going to be that important to me.

  28. That’s fair. I liked it, but I’d never really fight over it. It’s never going to be that important to me.

    Is anyone that invested in this film to fight for it?

  29. Ken Hanke

    Is anyone that invested in this film to fight for it?

    Not that I’ve seen here, but I certainly don’t rule out the possibility considering some of the praise it’s gotten in general.

  30. Ken Hanke

    I see nothing shameful about it. And I haven’t seen The Thin Red Line.

  31. kimboronni

    Thin Red Line is a favorite of mine. I always suggest that folks watch it twice… I did before I got it.

  32. Mike

    Thin Red Line is a favorite of mine. I always suggest that folks watch it twice… I did before I got it.

    Yeah, I can agree with this. I revisited it last weekend and found my chief gripe from the first viewing – the languid pace – was no longer a problem. Makes me wonder if I should give The New World another go.

  33. John

    Does the film have anything to do the Tree of Life in Bahrain? I miss Bahrain.

  34. Me

    Does anybody know if Malick created his own Opus 161 for the film? He seems like one of those meticulous directors who would try that. I can see why he kept pulling the release date the film looked like a bitch to edit.

  35. coursepate

    haven’t seen tree of life …. maybe this coming week ….

    though
    I have to agree and then some with kimboronni ….
    thin red line is masterful ….

    sure it isn’t bad teacher or hot tub time machine, but it is probably worth seeing before final destination 5 or night at the museum 7

    with a 95% rating amongst top critics

  36. DrSerizawa

    Well, I’m glad that some people like it. However after sitting through Days of Heaven and TTRL, twice, I can’t gen up the energy for it. I’m just not a Malik person. Though I don’t have issues with people who are. At least he has top notch cinematography. But it was the adolescent “philosophy” of TTRL that did me in. That and the depiction of the US Army in 1942 as a pack of navel gazers who just wanted to be in peace and brotherhood with the Japanese.

  37. Meg V

    I wish more people would see the bigger picture that Malick paints for the audience in ‘The Tree of Life.’ People going to this film expecting to see a story about a boy will be quickly disappointed. Malick uses a relatable microcosm of the small texas family to answer larger questions about the universe that every person faces. The trailer of the film basically sums it up. There are two ways to life: the way of nature and the way of grace. Humanity ultimately lives with the duality of nature vs. nurture and Malick does a beautiful job of portraying both sides. And everyone has been disappointed with the ending but honestly- how else could it end? These aren’t problems that Sean Penn’s character are facing- these are problems and questions that you and I, the audience, are challenged with that only we as individuals can answer. Malick presents a point, and an arguement for both sides, and leaves it to the audience decide the more righteous path. Nature vs. Nurture? It’s up to you. But either way the film was beautifully crafted and very well executed.

  38. Ken Hanke

    I wish more people would see the bigger picture that Malick paints for the audience in ‘The Tree of Life.’ People going to this film expecting to see a story about a boy will be quickly disappointed.

    I didn’t go expecting a story about a boy. I was aware it was supposed to be more than that. My problem was that it didn’t seem wholly persuasive to me.

    The trailer of the film basically sums it up. There are two ways to life: the way of nature and the way of grace. Humanity ultimately lives with the duality of nature vs. nurture and Malick does a beautiful job of portraying both sides.

    That may indeed be what he portrays, but I don’t think that nature vs. grace and nature vs. nurture are exactly the same thing.

    And everyone has been disappointed with the ending but honestly- how else could it end?

    It ended pretty much as I expected, so I can’t say I’m disappointed with it. (It felt a lot like the beginning and ending of David Lynch’s Elephant Man actually.) But then I went into this with the idea that — in strictly dramatic terms — the answer was going to be a lemon in that it would be no answer at all. I really had no problem with the ending in itself. If I have a problem, it’s with the fact that it didn’t actually make me feel anything. (Not a charge I would level again The Elephant Man.)

  39. Other than the fantastic imagery, what I most took away from the film was its on-point depiction of childhood. In one vignette after another, Malick presents the range of experiences and emotions that nearly every boy goes through. It was a joy to watch, as with each new sequence, a more complete and relatable portrait of childhood was painted. Most importantly, Malick never tells you what to think, but as with any great visual artist, he does a magnificent job of showing sights and sounds and just enough dialogue to form your own thoughts and leave the film with a deeply personal experience. Few films accomplish that these days, and fewer still to the extent of TREE OF LIFE.

    Also, the dinosaurs are excellent. They’re tender and humane, plus they’re well-designed and it’s neat seeing them interact in familiar settings, like a forest clearing or pebbly stream. Past cinema (I blame FANTASIA) taught me to expect a more desolate landscape for all things dino, so seeing them in places I feel I’ve been to was somewhat surreal. JURASSIC PARK’s zoo-enclosed dinos wish they were this free, though I guess they are now…

    Everything about this film worked for me. Complaints about half-baked characters and narrative feel unfounded. Each shot is poetic and melodic; they all say something interesting (even, I might say ESPECIALLY, the creation moments) and every big thought/theme/question, no matter how ambitious, is earned. It’s so refreshing to experience a film like TREE OF LIFE.

  40. JOHN-C

    With all the failure you’ve cited in the film… I’m surprised you’ve given it four stars Ken. The dino and creation parts are the first half of the film. And to throw my two cents in the pot… I think this film will be forgotten soon… The ghost of the rental shop… BLAH

  41. coursepate

    tree of life is not transformers or planet of the apes or knight and day

    if you want to sit and watch a movie perfectly cast, beautiful/intimate direction
    casting light on who we are and why we are
    casting light on who we are and why we are
    sublime cinematography

    brad pitt held one of his sons in a chair for 20 seconds … in that 20 seconds mallick exposed a universal contradiction of fatherhood … as a father and a son it is breathtakingly realized …

    you can probably find some plotting, but the power of the elements in the film are so much bigger it seems a waste of time not to enjoy the experience ….

  42. Ken Hanke

    tree of life is not transformers or planet of the apes or knight and day

    No, but that’s a stacked-deck of false comparisons.

    in that 20 seconds mallick exposed a universal contradiction of fatherhood …

    Hey, if it did that for you, swell. Everyone’s responses are to a large degree dependent on their own life experiences and personal baggage. Just don’t expect your universal contradiction to find universal recognition.

  43. coursepate

    really ken responses are somewhat dependent on life experiences ? …

    “The Tree of Life is profound, pretentious, art, twaddle, a cinematic event and a pompous bore all packed into 138-overlong minutes”….

    are you trying to say something

    i doubt many “non-reviewers” expect their opinions are universally recognized, I think some people might stumble across and recognize something a director might be trying to get across and we might comment … if only to offer an opinion that might help someone decide to see this movie …

  44. Ken Hanke

    i doubt many “non-reviewers” expect their opinions are universally recognized

    I don’t know any reviewers who do either.

  45. Jeffrey DeCristofaro

    As far as we’re debating THE TREE OF LIFE, I just want to confirm for the record that, as a “film buff” or “cinephile” or whatever people call die-hard film lovers these days, I am a person who tends to have the understandable but regrettable habit of stumbling upon a filmmaker’s work much later than I should have, particularly with those who have passed on. (The “passed on” part really gets to me – I often dream what it would be like to work with those people while they were still alive, especially since I am working my way slowly up the ladder to doing films of my own.)

    This feeling has happened before with previous perfectionist auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose films I love even though I feel guilty that I wasn’t introduced to them much earlier in my life. In the case of Kubrick, it took a UNC-Asheville course in 2006 to understand the reason why he’s one of the greats, although I could have seen all his films before taking the course. Dreyer and Tarkovsky I just came across myself without the requirement of a film course, but the feeling remained. And I can certainly say the same for Ken Russell, who I have most recently added to my faves list, much later than I should have.

    Fortunately, I did not feel the same thing about Terrence Malick’s films – I am a fan of his work, I love how he defies conventional filmmaking practices with his own visionary approach, and I do love his combination of profound imagery and philosophy, even if it does at times become too pretentious and slow-moving at times with the majority of audience members, including those who are least patient with the pace and put off by the tone. But it when I got THE THIN RED LINE in a Criterion Collection edition last year as a Christmas present that I immediately fell in love with it and started watching his other films, and just prior to the release of THE TREE OF LIFE. While I still think THE THIN RED LINE is his best film (and one of my top favorites), I’m in the minority in calling THE TREE OF LIFE a truly filmic masterpiece.

    Whatever others may think of Malick and his films, I am just glad to see that I was able to finally quell my bad habit of “late introductions” by catching up with his previous cinematic contributions, and just in time for his latest work. I am still in awe of the man – and maybe one day, hopefully, I can get a chance to work with him before he “passes on.”

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