The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life Poster2011 Best Picture Nominee

The Tree of Life is one of the films I especially wanted to watch during this month of Best Picture reviews, because I remembered the schism between my fellow movie bloggers when it came out. I had passed the film by — in fact I hadn’t heard of it until the reviews started, which were mostly after its Oscar nomination — and until this week had never seen any film in Terrence Malick’s body of work. I had little idea of what to expect, except that it would be challenging and different, because the reviews from other bloggers seemed almost entirely at odds with each other. Enchanting. Bland. Profound. Pretentious. Moving. Monotonous. Transcendent. Confusing.

A case could be made for any of these terms. It’s most certainly an ambitious film, and Malick should at least be applauded for daring to be different. But I have to say my final take on the film is more inclined to agree with its detractors, though I see definite merits in the film.

The story, if it could be said to have one, is of a young boy named Jack growing up with his parents and two younger brothers. The film introduces Hunter McCracken as Jack, and Sean Penn plays the adult version of him. The film is essentially told in flashback.


Some scenes flash back farther than others.

The scenes of Jack’s youth consist of discrete pieces with little inter-connectivity. It’s essentially a slice-of-life film showing Jack as a boy rather than showing any particular narrative. We see him struggle against the stern upbringing of his father (Brad Pitt), and try to reconcile it with the gentle and almost innocent viewpoint of his mother (Jessica Chastain). This leads to him rebelling against them both, and getting up to youthful acts that hint at a disturbed mindset. This is interleaved with narration from the adult Jack and occasionally his mother, and with scenes of the cosmos or the development of Earth. One can only imagine the reaction of the producers when Malick started submitting budget requests for special effects.


“You want to put what in your family drama?”

Looking at the film with a couple years’ distance from its release, it’s not hard to see where the different viewpoints on it come from. The cosmic/prehistoric/etc scenes are very pretty, and if one really stretches one’s imagination one can see thematic connections, but they aren’t readily apparent and they do interrupt what narrative exists. They are also mostly static; although they are reminiscent of a realistic Fantasia, they lack the dynamic nature of that film. They are at best grace notes to the primary portion of the film, which is the story of Jack… and that story is not especially interesting. Like the pictures of the nebulae, it is virtually static, unmoving. Character growth is at a glacial pace for Jack, and non-existent for anybody else. We see several vignettes of his life growing up, but one is almost indistinguishable from the next. There is a haze over the film, both visually with a soft-focus and emotionally where even scenes of characters shouting are lacking in energy. Although a simple and soft narrative can be pleasing sometimes, it can also be tedious, and this film wears out its welcome about an hour before it ends.

This isn’t helped much by the narration. It inserts philosophical aspects into the film, and is arguably the point of the whole piece. It has some genuinely profound statements, but they are neither as many nor as profound as Terrence Malick appears to think they are. The thoughts it imparts are mostly ones that any mature viewer will have reconciled themselves with in some fashion by the time they are 30… and one rather doubts the likelihood of younger viewers enjoying this film.

I can respect the craftsmanship that went into the film; it is unquestionably a very artistic work, and exceptionally so at that. But it was not a terribly interesting one. It is the sort of film that, being inclined to write a review, I knew I had to write one quickly. By the end of the week I suspect the details may well have faded from memory.

Rating: 2 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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12 Responses to The Tree of Life

  1. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I called this the best movie of 2011, but it’s a film that you really need to connect with the characters in order to enjoy. I would recommend checking out Badlands, which is one of Malick’s more accessible, or my favorite of his films The Tree of Life.

    • …Did you mean to type “The Tree of Life” in your second recommendation there, CK? Because I’m pretty sure I checked that out. 😀

      I’ll give Badlands some consideration if I come across it. Thanks.

      • ckckred says:

        Sorry, I meant The Thin Red Line. Great war movie and one of my favorites.

        • Ah, OK. Fortunately both versions of The Thin Red Line are already on my watchlist. The 1998 version — which is Malick’s, correct? — is another Best Picture nominee. Not sure I’ll get to it this month, but I’ll get to it eventually.

  2. The Vern says:

    Very nice post. I agree that this is a movie that people are split with. I m in agreement with you that it is has great visuals but the story is not that interesting. It’s one I watch just to admire the look of it.

  3. 70srichard says:

    I am on the detractor list. Everyone is effected by movies in a different way, but I have the most difficult time understanding the affection that many have for this picture. This is one of the few films I actually hate. Tedious feels like a kind way to express the events of the film. If it makes someone else happy than it balances the world out a bit, but I can’t imagine ever sitting through it again. Sometimes ten minutes of aimless walking around is not deep, it is pointless.

    • Very true, Richard. Most of this film does indeed feel aimless to me. It’s something I’ve commented on before with ambitious faux-philosphical films; there are a lot of them that seem to think that profundity is a question of how things are said, rather than what is said.

  4. Jaina says:

    Pretty much share your exact same thoughts – it is a beautifully crafted film. A moving score. But, the narrative and the characters and the film itself left me cold. It felt pretentious. I didn’t get any sort of transcendental feeling a lot of other film fans have got. It left me cold.

  5. CMrok93 says:

    Malick doesn’t always get what he wants to say perfectly right, but what he does get right is the visuals in this that are just absolutely, positively stunning to gaze at. It’s as if you’re watching a fresco-painting being created right in front of your own eyes. Good review Morgan.

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