A rootless “Tree of Life”

tree of life

The Tree of Life

dir. Terrence Malick

Release Date: Jun 03, 11

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By now you’re probably pretty familiar with reclusive writer/director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The delayed release. The confounding trailer. The booing and subsequent victory at Cannes. But despite the mystery, the controversy, and the Palme d’Or, the question remains: Will it live up to the ridiculously high expectations? For many, it has. For me, it has not.

The plot of this movie centers on a family living in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, one of the sons of said family grappling with life and death many years later, and the very formation of the earth itself. This is the first problem with Tree. Not only is it incredibly schizophrenic in its narrative, but it takes pride in confusing its audience. When a filmmaker makes you question what’s happening up on screen for the purpose of furthering your emotional and intellectual experience, it can be a work of beauty. But when a filmmaker makes you question what you’re seeing simply for the sake of making you do so, there is nothing more pretentious or arrogant.

One gets the sense that Malick is trying to do the former, but the film feels helplessly stuck in the latter. Because of this, it’s hard to make a genuine emotional connection with anything that goes on in Tree. Rather than a poet, Malick comes off as a conceited magician, attempting to show us tricks that will make us say, “What just happened?” rather than cause us to ponder the actual nature of what it was that we saw. In the end, the whole thing feels like a giant sleight-of-hand, rather than a true story.

Perhaps this is missing the point, because story was clearly the last thing on Malick’s mind when he set out to make this film. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Many directors, some lesser and some greater than Malick, have succeeded before in providing the audience with a visual poem, rather than a focused narrative. However, Malick’s issue is that he doesn’t really do either. He tries to combine both approaches, and ends up with results that are unfortunate, to say the least. Again, he’s not the first to do it, and the most logical comparison to The Tree of Life, which many people observed before the film was even out, is 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that film, Kubrick too sought to weave in and out of story and sensory experience., but he did it with focus. He established a flow from beginning to end, knowing when to evenly crescendo and diminish.

Next to Kubrick, Malick seems more interested in making noise than in crafting an actual symphony. The creation scenes at the beginning are ridiculously long, so much so that it’s hard to even care about the story of this 1950s family by the time that the film gets there. And then there’s the plotline of Jack, the family’s eldest son, played as an adult by Sean Penn, who’s barely even in the film. The older Jack pops in an out, floating in between life and death, fantasy and reality. Presumably he’s there to tie everything together, but his scenes are ultimately so few that the character feels like nothing more than an afterthought. It’s this meandering that takes away any sense of pacing from Tree, and which ultimately takes away so much of the effect Malick wanted to leave us with.

There are, of course, some indisputably good things about this movie. Brad Pitt, as Mr. O’Brien, the patriarch of this Texas family, is excellent. He alternates between love and fear when interacting with his three boys, and although you’re never quite sure of his character, you are sure of the fierce conviction Pitt has given him every time he appears onscreen. And then there’s newcomer Hunter McCracken, as the young Jack. If there’s a true star in this movie, it’s him. He conveys both the wonder and uncertainty of childhood in a way that is at once naturalistic and nuanced. If Malick had truly set out to make a coming-of-age story centered on Jack’s entering into self-realization, this movie might’ve been quite strong. Whereas 2001 seeks to explore the wonders of the cosmos, Tree supposes that there’s something beyond that cosmos. But in many ways, the film is best when it’s not trying to be 2001, and looks instead at the smaller details that make up our collective humanity.

But unfortunately, the strengths of The Tree of Life also help to highlight its weaknesses. Sure, there are a few intimate moments, but in the end they’re overshadowed by a plethora of ridiculously long, special effects-driven sequences, depicting the creation of the world and the vastness of death. Malick devotes adequate time to neither grace nor nature; in fact, he doesn’t really devote adequate time to anything. Instead, he jumps around awkwardly, as if he’s trying to give clarity to the film’s ideas, but is only able to hide behind the artistic beauty for which he’s known. There’s so much going on here, it’s as if it wants to be a movie about everything, and in its confusion ends up being about nothing.

Malick grew up in Waco, Texas during the ‘50s himself, and one can only assume he drew on aspects of his actual childhood while crafting Tree. However, in focusing on every lofty idea he could get his hands on, he looses all sense of the personal. His vision here was indeed stunning, but unfortunately his ambition got in the way. When it’s all said and done, The Tree of Life is a film that poses many questions, but answers few.

  • The last line of your review seems to reflect that the movie, on a meta level, does a good job of describing it’s subject matter, life itself: “The Tree of Life is a film that poses many questions, but answers few.”

  • Suckit

    you suck

  • Yorkie

    Go watch the movie before insulting this reviewer. The movie, if it can be called that, is a series of shots rather than scenes. Characters voice over the shots in hushed whispers that sound poignant, but degenerate into nothing when dissected. There are no conversations, only monologues mostly taking place off screen. There is no timeline in this movie making comparisons to 2001 ridiculous. 2001 had a story, it had a structure, it had actual characters we could care about– this has none of that. This has nameless people wandering around inside of off kilter frames speaking about nothing and giving us no reason to care about any of this.
    This “movie” would do well as a screen saver, but if you wish to experience anything other than pretty visuals, if you wish to be moved or feel something– watch anything else. There is a suggestion of emotion, of meaning and of grandiosity, but none of it actually exists. It’s empty. This is a black hole in every regard apart from the visuals.
    This is a movie not meant to be understood because there is no understanding to come to, it exists only to be vague so as to have it’s audience make up their own point and assign their own meaning to it based on whatever the pretty shots reminded them of. If somebody showed you a picture book of the earth’s creation and a faceless and nameless family in texas, with some images of Penn, much like this movie, wandering around aimlessly in oblivion, you’d come away the same.

    I won’t question why this exists, but I do question why it was shown in a movie theater when this doesn’t contain even half of what makes a movie a movie. This belongs on vimeo or YouTube at best.

    • Guest

      You’re an idiot who obviously only enjoys 2001 becaue you know you are supposed to.

  • I appreciate the post given on the film “The Tree of Life” by writer/director Terrence Malick. As I read your words, it sounds like the film’s issues are without boundaries to focus the message for the moviegoer. It would be a lot to take in and process with too much going on and left unclear. But with enough of the issues put forth then, as you say it so well, “a connection” anchors the emotional bridge to its message and to its audience. It also would on a much grander scale, beyond the big screen, possibly create in the moviegoer an awareness of discovery in the intended message. Whether it’s self or humanity discovery, it feeds the mind to associate the movie’s intended message. Without it, the issues are lost. Chris Osterndorf, thanks for the discerning post.
    Suzanne McMillen-Fallon, Published Author 2011’sWritings.html (currently not active)

  • Pale Blue Dot

    I found the movie incredible.The question asked is if there is a god where were you when my son died? Malick then shows the eons of processes subatomic to the intergalactic  going on until we reach 1950s Waco.My take in what Malick was saying is, “here I am. See the whole universe at work here?’ It showed how astounding it really is that we have the stability we have each day when you place our lives in the uncertainty of the cosmos. Also I found the movie to be about what one must confront when one entity faces a more powerful one. We are ultimately at the mercy of the stronger force, Dinosaurs were at the mercy of a random asteroid, landscapes to geologic upheaval, then in Waco, children to their parents, communities to DDT, Fathers to their bosses, humans to their god etc..

  • Dominick

    I agree pretty heavily with this review. My biggest contention is that Malick clearly wants us to contemplate the questions he’s getting at, but then presents them in such an austere, at-arm’s-length sort of way that it’s off-putting. I was reminded of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which got at some of the same questions, but it was done in a way that even though it was ostensibly a nature documentary, it still maintained resonance. To me, this did not.

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