REVIEW: The Tree of Life

30 06 2011

I saw “The Tree of Life” almost three weeks before publishing this review, and ever since, I’ve been so conflicted as to how I would approach reviewing it.  While I definitely wasn’t the biggest fan of the movie (more on that later), I didn’t want to insult those who loved it – and there were many of those, including the majority of critics.  As an amateur blogger, I’m straddling a delicate line between critic and average moviegoer, and I’m usually seen as standing on one side or the other.  But speaking as both, I recognize that writer/director Terrence Malick endowed his latest movie with a lot of meaning: for me, however, that meaning was hollow and ultimately didn’t parallel the amount of ambition on display.

I don’t care who you hear talking about how much they understand “The Tree of Life” or how much they realize every moment of the movie – unless they have a Ph.D. and have seen the movie multiple times, there is simply no way they can.  The movie is too overwhelming in scope for anyone to fully digest, much less comprehend.  Every frame is deliberate in its own right, and every image (except mopey Sean Penn) is endowed with an undeniable beauty by its creator, Terrence Malick.

But where I separate with the general critical consensus is that while I see the rapture of each shot, I don’t see them as contributing to the work as a whole.  To borrow an expression, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.  I have no doubt that in Terrence Malick’s head, this is an absolutely sublime movie, a thoughtful meditation on some of the biggest questions of humanity and religion.  Yet somewhere between his mind and what my eyes saw on the screen, there was a great disconnect.

What “The Tree of Life” seemed to represent for me is the dark flip side of auteurism.  Because Malick has an affinity for the unconventional and the avant-garde, I don’t get the sense there is someone looking over his shoulder and keeping his wild ambitions in line.  Without this presence I perceive to be absent, Malick loses his message amidst his unbridled zeal.  The movie is full of mixed metaphors and muddled messages, which obscure the film’s meaning and dull its impact.

Take, for example, the two overarching spiritual themes that are presented at the beginning of the film.  First, there’s the dialectic struggle between the way of nature, being of earthly concerns and best represented by Brad Pitt’s stern patriarch, and the way of grace, representing the larger religious beliefs and manifest in Jessica Chastain’s virtually mute mother.  It marks the life of Jack, played ruefully but compellingly as an adolescent by Hunter McCracken and sullenly as an adult by Sean Penn, as he grows up in 1950s Texas.

Then, there’s the theme of questioning why God lets bad things happen and his presence amidst the storms in life, set up by the film’s epigraph that quotes the book of Job.  No inspired interplay exists between the two, and by the end, it feels like Malick has just haphazardly abandoned them both to pursue an abstract visualization of heaven.  It’s like a paper written by a middle schooler who is so exhausted by the time he finishes it that he doesn’t go back to check and edit it once he’s done.

And of course no discussion of “The Tree of Life” could be complete without mentioning the Big Bang/evolution/dinosaurs sequence, which feels like Malick’s 20-minute salute to Kubrick’s Dawn of Man chapter in “2001” complete with plaintive chorale.  It’s definitely out there and very open to interpretation, just like the rest of the movie.  But in this colossal fusion of towering ambition with sprawling imagery of the heavens, we see the difference between the two visual storytellers.  Kubrick compartmentalizes his visions, making for a much smoother viewing experience.  Malick, on the other hand, blends it all together like a transcendentalist who forgot to take his Ritalin.  The small amount of narrative the movie has to offer becomes confusing as a result.

What it all boils down to is that Malick has made “The Tree of Life” the most unusual kind of must-see movie.  If you care about the direction that the craft of cinema is going, you have to see the movie just so you can weigh in and discuss.  Whether it then becomes no longer just a must-see movie, but also a recommendable movie, is a choice you have to make for yourself.  While I can see the art in Malick’s creation, I can’t see the clear execution of a vision.  I saw the beauty of nature, a fine performance by Hunter McCracken, dinosaur drama, breathtaking cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, yet I felt a profound sense of boredom.  C+ / 

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10 responses

30 06 2011
Fitz

This seems to be the most polarizing film in recent memory. I would love to give my take, but I don’t anticipate being able to see this until it hits DD.

1 07 2011
Sam Fragoso

I felt the same way on many aspects of your review. Easily a film that can be a “life-changing” experience, just not for me. Too ponderous and self indulgent.

1 07 2011
Marshall

It’s the movie that most levelheaded people can admire and somewhat appreciate, but from that bottom line, that’s about all I can stomach liking. I also totally felt it was self-indulgent, what is Malick’s obsession with hands running through grass?

And @ Fitz, yes, it is incredibly polarizing. I almost think that some people like it and pretend to understand it just so they can seem sophisticated and of a higher class of moviegoer.

1 07 2011
James D.

“I almost think that some people like it and pretend to understand it just so they can seem sophisticated and of a higher class of moviegoer.”

Why would someone pretend to like something that they don’t? I thought that Black Swan, Easy A, Get Him to the Greek, Fair Game, Inside Job, Rabbit Hole, and many other movies you have praised were awful, but I understand what you saw in them because you have articulated what you thought their strengths were. I think, more than any other film released in the last few years, fans of The Tree of Life have done a tremendous job in detailing what they felt when they watched it and what they thought Malick was trying to convey. I haven’t seen any sort of snobbery or derision by the fans of the film.

You say that the movie is nearly impossible to understand, but I think it is pretty straightforward. Granted, I am only halfway through a Masters Degree (No PhD) and have only seen it once, but I have thought a lot about it. The middle section of the film, showing the boys grow up, is as straightforward as a movie can be, and the Sean Penn sequences detail a man who is lost and feels alone in the universe, despite what looks like a wife and a prestigious job. What Malick is precisely trying to convey in the ending may be impossible to interpret, as you say, but Malick’s decision to not do interviews suggests that we are meant to figure it out ourselves. That is what is one of its strengths; my interpretation is that it is merely the daydreams of an adult Jack seeking closure, and I support this by the constant interactions with water and his own wonder at the sink and the water pouring out, but someone else might think it is Malick’s vision of the Christian Heaven. No one is wrong, and it makes the debate interesting and gives the film more value in subsequent viewings. Art that is instantly understandable is suspect and ultimately disposable, at least to me.

28 07 2011
scott

“Art that is instantly understandable is suspect and ultimately disposable, at least to me.”

Absolutely. Additionally, I thought the Job passages played out wonderfully throughout the galactic/molecular scenes where you hear the whispered prayers of Jessica Chastain.

I too, not quite finished with a Master’s, enjoyed and largely felt that I understood this film – or at least it held meaning for me.

Marshall – I enjoy your writing. You are very talented at analyzing and dissecting films. I do not believe that your review of this film was altogether unfair, but I would not go so far as to compare this movie to a middle-schooler’s paper. It is a little combative.

But, like you said: “Whether it then becomes no longer just a must-see movie, but also a recommendable movie, is a choice you have to make for yourself.”

28 07 2011
Marshall

Thanks for the kind words, although to defend myself, I don’t think my simile was all too out of line. I don’t think this review was combative at all; most of the film’s detractors have been much more severe and harsh than my review. I tried to be respectful because I know that many people adore this movie, a lot of them for the same reasons that I disliked it. The phrase was an image I thought some people would be able to visualize (or maybe even relate to).

And I’m sure if I tried, I could understand this movie. Read up on it, Malick’s techniques, go see it a few more times – but I don’t want to. I absolutely agree with James’ statement about understandable art, but at the same time, art should inspire you to WANT to know more, and “The Tree of Life” just didn’t inspire me to do anything. I don’t know what happened on screen, and quite frankly, I don’t care to figure it out.

To quote Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, “People already feel protective of this movie and of Malick, who’s 67, as if his purity couldn’t withstand scrutiny: He’s a visionary and an artist, and those are dying traits in major American moviemakers now. Shouldn’t that suffice? That reverence also dramatizes the downside of standing at some visionaries’ feet: You don’t always see what they see.”

1 07 2011
Harry

I’ve only seen it once, but I enjoyed what I experienced. Personally, I feel pretty much unable to evaluate it in the conventional sense of “was it a good movie?” To me, it’s more like a 2 hour impressionist painting. I don’t really know. I felt things, I thought things, but I don’t feel able to express my thoughts on the movie articulately and coherently for the very reason that my reaction was so emotionally based. I’m not sure.

6 07 2011
Castor

I find it hilarious that there is all of those “Tree of Life Walkthrough” trying to explain the movie to people. It’s a film to be experienced personally and interpreted as such. It’s definitely more of a piece of art rather than a movie seeking to entertain so I can see why it has been so polarizing so far.

6 11 2011
From Around the Web… (11/6/11) Tree of Life Edition « Silver Emulsion Film Reviews

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27 01 2012
hatedandslated

“The whole was less than the sum of it’s parts.”

A very good review, Marshall, and one I completely agree with. There is a big difference between something being open to interpretation and downright confusion. The most confusing aspect being – what happened to the third brother? Surprised you haven’t mentioned it.

There may be endless discussions about its high art status but ultimately it comes down to what you ‘feel’ when you watch it. The Kubrick homage was fantastic. Loved the music and the cinematography. Didn’t get the same feeling for the boys’ story. The depiction of child innocence seemed to be shoved down my throat. I thought the boys were too playful on the verge of Attention Deficit. And all the touching and cuddling? Even with a strict father to galvanize their relationship, young boys are simply not that affectionate.

After a while, all the whispering became irritating, and then it felt like I was being preached to. Another irritant was the over-use of symbolism, which felt like it was there for symbolism’s sake. The mask sinking in the water?

This is a great film to stimulate discussion, and to polarize like the guy above said, but emotionally, it left me cold. Purposeless pretension.

“..dark flip side of auteurism.” – some great lines in your review. Very inciteful, indeed.

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