The Tree of Life

Am I reviewing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life over six months after it was released in theaters?


Does this render my review practically obsolete due to extreme, ridiculous late-ness?

Yeah, probably.

Wanna keep reading anyway?

Let’s hope that’s a yes. If so, signify by hitting that sweet, sweet ‘Continue Reading’ button.

First off, congratulations on continuing to read this (hopefully) wonderful and insightful article.

(nervous, awkward laughter)

Anyway, let me start by posing a question: What makes a movie?

Is it simply a series of pictures in motion? Or should there be some underlying connection in what we see, linking each image into some kind of story? Can we consider anything with moving pictures to truly be a motion picture? The point I’m trying to make here is: Where does a movie like The Tree of Life fall on the spectrum between “Movies with a clear narrative” and “A random jumbling of images and sounds projected on a screen?”

You may have gathered from this introduction that I’m not really enthused with the narrative elements in The Tree of Life. It’s true. If you were to, spontaneously, divide movie fans into those who go for the images and those who go for the story, I’d be a story guy, through and through. The Tree of Life is beautiful, there’s no doubt about that. Nearly every image in the film, from the highest peaks to the deepest oceans to the lines in Brad Pitt’s face are captured with a sense of care and wonder that’s almost magical.

But images alone can’t carry a two hour and twenty minute movie. And the pacing is so glacial (and the story so minimal) that I found myself wishing for the end about an hour in. The Tree of Life is a simple story about a father’s abuses shaping his son’s life, but from what we see there’s just not enough meat in that story to sustain a nearly two and a half hour running time. This is especially true when a sizable chunk of that running time is devoted to near-still shots of stars, planets, mountains, lava, dinosaurs and eerie lights that may or may not be some kind of higher power.

The story itself, though, is powerful, and when the tension actually ramps up The Tree of Life can be very captivating (mostly due to Brad Pitt’s abrasive, ugly, wonderful turn as the I-had-to-look-his-name-up-afterward ‘Mr. O’Brien’). It’s just plagued with detours to all sorts of far-off places that are wondrous to look at but narratively useless. As I watched more and more of the film, I found myself wondering on multiple occasions: What does this add to the movie?

Why did the creation-of-life segment last so long? I understand the idea of showing the creation of life in the universe as a contrast to life in the O’Brien family, but what did the immense length and stillness of that sequence add to the movie that a similar, much-shorter sequence wouldn’t have?

What was Sean Penn doing here? If we’re seeing him in the present while we see his childhood self develop, shouldn’t there be some kind of significance to his adult self? Other than a brief, uncomfortable phone call with his father, how did this tumultuous upbringing affect his character? We really don’t get to find out, because all Sean Penn does is stare out into space and trudge through mountains and deserts and a very, very heavy-handed “doorframe to nowhere in the middle of nothingness.” What did Sean Penn’s presence add to this movie?

What’s with the odd vision sequence at the end? When Jessica Chastain gives her son to God, why is there some other woman we’ve never seen before standing in the frame with her? And in that same sequence, what’s the point of having Sean Penn and Brad Pitt walking side-by-side? What does this symbolize? Is this some kind of resolution for the conflict between the two characters? There’s no real climax to the relationship between the father and the son in this story, so I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to think by seeing the two of them walk together at the end of the picture.

And this was basically my mindset throughout the whole movie. I would ask a question to myself that I know wouldn’t get answered, I would get frustrated, and then would continue watching and have this process repeat again and again. And at the same time, I would think, “Oooohh, how pretty” at all the visual marvels The Tree of Life has to offer.

So, if you think that masterful photography drives you to the movies more than a compelling story does, then go see The Tree of Life. But remember that this review’s about nine months too late and that you’ve probably already seen it by now if you were interested at the get-go.

But anyway, thanks for reading!


19 responses to “The Tree of Life

  1. I agree with your review although I probably wouldn’t have been as nice to the movie as you were. The visuals are certainly stunning, but without a plot what’s the point? I feel like so much more could have developed had the movie focused more on the story and less on the awesome visuals. A sequence doesn’t have to be long to be breath taking.

    I do have a note from when you talk about the ending sequence with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. I thought that after Brad Pitt’s character losses his job, he apologizes to his son and they begin to reconcile, which would give that scene a little more meaning.

    As a theologian I wish they had done more with the religious aspects of the film as well. I almost felt like there was going to be a battle between Nature and Grace as described in the beginning by the narration, but then nothing happened with it.

    Oh well, at least it was pretty.

    • You make a pretty good point about the reconciliation towards the end of the film- I didn’t notice that the first time around. Also in terms of the film’s religious significance, I just read an article today (today!) about a scene cut from the film involving Cain and Abel, which would definitely have upped the ante in terms of the film’s religious significance.

      Check it out here

  2. Thanks for the review. I respect your opinion but agree with very little of it, but then I am not gripped with the idea (Illusion) that every film has to be driven by the narrative, and am not chained to fast-paced editing. To characterize the film as: “a random jumbling of images and sounds projected on a screen” reveals clearly that you didn’t “get” it. This is a very broad canvas: a meditation: a tone poem. Terrence Malick knew EXACTLY what he was doing in the editing room- it just didn’t work for you with all your prerequisites for enjoying a film. I do agree that Brad Pitt was amazing and that Sean Penn’s brooding and pining didn’t really say anything. But having seen the film twice, I would suggest that the unidentified woman in question was supposed to be Jessica Chastain’s mother. Perhaps you missed the point of the end: When Brad & Sean were walking together it was in the AFTERLIFE. This was the meaning of the mysterious door frame. I for one, am thrilled that there was no “religious” content. This is a film about human spirituality, not about codified dogma. For me, this was far and away the best film of 2011. You can read my review at: Thanks for sharing fellow movie-lover!

    • I’ll admit that I do (vastly) prefer movies with a more narrative bent, and perhaps on a repeated viewing I’ll be able to get more out of The Tree of Life. I’d say that a good point of comparison would be Carlos Sorin’s The Window, which also deals with father-and-son relationships and the idea of life itself. Both films move slowly and methodically and without much dialogue, but The Window takes a straightforward narrative path, while The Tree of Life does the exact opposite. I guess it just comes down to personal preference, really.

      Either way, thanks for the discussion!

  3. I watched the first twenty minutes of this pretentious twaddle and turned it off.

    Unlike this review, the film had no point, no interest to me and a complete vacuum of narrative.

    Maybe one day I’ll return to Tree Of Life and give it another shot, but for now there’s plenty of other films that I’ll enjoy more waiting for me to watch them.

    Great review, Adam.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I sat through the whole thing, but it lost my interest after about fifteen minutes.

      Oh, and I’m sure you’re just ecstatic about it being nominated for Best Picture.


    • This was one of the few interesting impressionistic films of the year. If you want to see a truly pointless piece of pretentious fuckery, go see Melancholia. That was the worst movie made in 2011, amongst the other hundreds I watched.

  4. I’m with you on the ‘story over imagery’ debate. Without a story a film is just a meaningless compilation of visuals and hollow characters. Yes, the first 20 minutes of the film did feel like flicking through a National Geographic. But now I think Tree of Life is anything but ‘pretentious’, and the imagery is not just a spiritual slideshow, meant to instil awe in the viewer through the means of a simple visual tactic. I think the opposite. I think these moments of beauty are directly linked to the story, and are integral to it. I think Malick is creating a new type of storyline that is not bound to the conventions of dialogue and action. Personally I think he’s saying there are feelings, such as the loss of a brother, which can’t be expressed through an ordinary storyline. Instead, he tries to communicate these feelings through visual and spiritual means which, if anything are closer to the true feelings than dialogue. But of course these are sensations that are beyond verbal OR visual communication. So Malick has set himself an impossible task, and knows he’s making himself very vulnerable by attempting it. But i whole-heartedly commend his effort. I don’t think Tree of Life is rejecting the idea of ‘plot’, I think it’s revolutionising the definition of plot. I think it’s hard for any modern audience to appreciate a film like this because it’s so out of their comfort zone – it demands so much from the viewer, namely the responsibility of interpreting it for oneself rather than being handed a ready-made interpretation. It doesn’t sit nicely with our expectations of what a film should be – fast-paced, plot-driven, sequential… And i think that’s why it sits in a class of its own.

    • While I love your analysis of the film, I don’t quite agree with the idea that a film that leaves so much up for interpretation is a revolution in the definition of plot. The story in Tree of Life is delivered more in a series of vignettes and themes than in any kind of traditional (or non-traditional) plot structure, and while that can give the film a lilting, spiritual feeling that can be very effective, I think the structure ends up hurting the film in the end. With out a clear sense of movement in the narrative, I feel like Tree of Life starts to lose focus in the end, and the payoff we should be getting with Sean Penn on the beach isn’t there- a film that pushes you towards a certain interpretation through the narrative can play with your emotions and get you to a place that’s unexpected and startling, but a film that leaves the majority of the interpretation up to the viewer can meander rather than guide the viewer towards something satisfying.

  5. I think you missed the point, my man. You’ve gotta read up on the film’s meaning and pay attention to the opening quote and the opening narration (by the mother.) They unlock the film for you. The movie makes (mostly) complete sense with some thinking put into deciphering it. Of course it’s not for everyone, but I think for a film freak like you or me, it’s easy to appreciate.

    On a sidenote, I also go to VCU. GO RAMS!!!

    • GO RAMS!!!

      After the film had sat with me for awhile, the whole idea of nature vs grace began to sink in, and that recurring theme does tie everything to the film to a common thread, but it’s still not enough to have changed my mind in any real way about the film. Plenty of films out there can drive home an idea about life or society without sacrificing elements of the narrative or the character development (just look at another Malick film- Badlands, which says wonders about how society and the media view violence).

  6. For me the film was Mallick’s version of Kubrick’s 2001. And while Kubrick started his film out at the dawn of man, Mallick started his at the dawn of the universe. Overall I’m glad that I saw the film, but it was difficult to like.

  7. First of all, I’m almost too intimidated to respond because of how well you wrote out your thoughts in that review. But I feel like I must somehow defend Tree of Life. Your question, “What makes a movie?” is so broad, and for me personally, it’s whenever I watch a movie and afterwards I don’t feel like I wasted my time. Ok, so I’m not very good at explaining things but all the beautiful imagery in that movie went to such great lengths because it wanted to get across the fact that no matter how much is going on in nature, no matter how huge everything is compared to a single family’s life, that family’s life can change just as many things as nature can. A single nano second of a feeling can change a person’s whole life and look on the world. The title of the movie Tree of Life is such a simple title for such a simple movie. If you step back and think about it, there aren’t many movies in the theaters that are just about a life and nothing else. There’s always another motive, a trend in the movie that is proving to be selling. Like significant partners are actually spies, two unlikely people coming together because of a baby, apocalypses…Anyways the only thing in this movie intended to help sell it is A-list actors. I have a weird grudge against Brad Pitt (probably something to do with my love for Friends and Jennifer Aniston), but his performance really made me think and changed my conscious for every day thinking. The sons seemed to barely speak, but I just subconsciously felt like I knew them, like I was watching reallllly well filmed home videos and towards the end of the movie, an empty feeling in me kept on getting bigger and bigger because I knew that the son died. Bleh, honestly I never want to see this movie again. Ever. But it’s in my top ten. It’s just one of those things. Sorry for the novel.

    • Hey, I’ve got no problem with lengthy posts, and you actually articulated your feelings on The Tree of Life really beautifully. There’s definitely a lack of films that are just about life itself (you could probably argue that similar themes are more common in the world of art cinema, but that’s a discussion for another day), and I can understand and appreciate what Malick was trying to do with Tree of Life, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I absolutely understand why it did with you, though.

      It’s weird. The film is clearly very polarizing- people either absolutely love it or absolutely hate it, but if almost feels like it’s polarizing on purpose, and like that’s some kind of statement about life itself.

  8. You may have reviewed this movie six months after it was out, but I read it nearly 1 1/2 years after that! But fun to do so as the movie still mystifies me. Wondering what the big deal was when it was just like you said–lots of wow and pretty, but nothing hung together or made any sense. I don’t mind abstract and I love movies that make you think. But this movie was just too open-ended. Fun to find you–appreciate you stopping by foodforfun’s beet brownies. I couldn’t find any food on your site, though thought there might be as Eat is in the title. Have I missed something? 😉

    • Well, my girlfriend ran a food blog for a few months, and I do technically love to eat (I’m eating some homemade bread as I type this and getting crumbs all over my computer), but I don’t actually eat whole televisions on this site.

      Maybe one day….

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