Well. That was something all right. In the spirit of the film itself, this is less a review and more an exploration of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life which is easily the furthest removed of all the director’s films from the conventions of a screen story. Looking at his career progression from 1974’s relatively concrete Badlands onward, that shouldn’t be a surprise. His movies have been increasingly interested in noodling around in the margins, even if they’re ultimately moored to a digestible narrative. Well, The Tree of Life is Malick Unplugged – unplugged from the conventions of storytelling that is. This will provide endless fuel for Malick’s detractors while also probably dividing his fans. Frankly, I doubt he’d have it any other way. It’s the sort of movie that refuses to string you along with “what happens next,” but instead asks you to engage with it and think about it and absorb it. It’s a movie to be experienced and felt. Though it is at times inscrutable and didn’t quite provide me the emotional kick which overwhelmed me in Malick’s The New World, it was still completely captivating and totally exhilarating.

Though The Tree of Life is indeed unhinged, that’s not to say there’s no there. At its core is the surprisingly simple and beautiful, yet sad and often painful story of the O’Briens, a 1950’s Texas family: a husband (Brad Pitt), a wife (Jessica Chastain) and three little boys. We know from the fractured chronology in which events are presented that one of the boys will die when he is 19 and this lends a haze of melancholy to the normal up and down familial rhythms. It’s also the launching point for one of Malick’s grand questions revolving around the idea God. “He’s in God’s hands now,” the mother is assured. But she protests: “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” The implication of course is that God made this happen, but there is no explanation why.

This is just one facet of a bigger picture that Malick is probing. That picture begins with the faint sounds of surf and ends at the ocean’s edge – the fluid dividing line between land and sea, pregnant with the power of transformation and, like God, the embodiment of both creation and destruction. Within this force of change, Malick is looking for lines of demarcation (or perhaps lines of connection) between God and man, grace and nature, mother and father, life and death – enormous, basic themes that cinema so rarely has the nerve to tackle anymore. His striving for answers is surprisingly blunt, though some might argue it’s banal. I find it refreshing, though I have to admit some frustration that Malick raises more questions than he answers. I suppose that is to be expected and perhaps even desired.

Beyond Malick’s impressionistic, prismatic central family story, he takes several leaps of fancy that are sure to be controversial. There are special effects laden forays through the cosmos from our own sun all the way to the Horse Head Nebula where stars are born; through time from the age of mankind back to the formation of the Earth; and through nature from the tiniest one-celled organisms to the largest dinosaurs; and finally through a lifetime from child to adult. It’s a God’s eye view of the universe and it puts into context the cosmically minor concerns of one family and their ups and downs. But to those individuals, from their perspective, the events that happen to them are everything. We don’t perceive the continuum upon which we exist in time and in space. There is only the then and now, the joy and pain, the love and hate. These are the things with which we are equipped to navigate our world. Ideas of God are supposed to provide comfort, but they also open up an endless universe in which to get lost. It’s tempting to think Malick favors a more pragmatic approach to our existence. As Mr. O’Brien puts it: “While you’re looking for something to happen, that was it. That was life. You lived it.”

As potentially distracting and controversial as Malick’s headier excursions are (Douglas Trumbull acted as a visual effects consultant on the film and many will be reminded at times of the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), the beating heart of the film returns time and again to the O’Briens. Malick’s evocation of boyhood is one of the most honest I’ve seen. He perfectly captures the the innocence and the evil, and the wonder and the horror like few others have. He also uncomfortably distills a family dynamic that will strike home for many people, especially those who grew up before the 1980s. There is the father, protecting but stern and frightening and also a bit resentful of his children. There is the mother, life giving, nurturing,  and playful. Caught between them are the older son who clashes with the father because they’re so much alike and the middle child, the creative one who favors the mother. It’s a dynamic of opposites and of tensions that Malick repeats, fractal-like, on infinitely bigger and smaller scales throughout the film.

Whatever you make of Malick’s ruminations – I don’t care to judge them or even pretend that I completely understand them after one viewing – technically the film is unassailable. The hazy and at times dreamlike cinematography is predictably gorgeous with Emmanuel Lubezki’s constantly moving camera searching and probing each scene as though looking for answers. The production design of long time Malick collaborator Jack Fisk perfectly evokes the 1950s. The score is made up of a panoply of classical pieces ranging from Brahms to Bach, to Mahler, Smetana, Holst and Respighi. It is filled in with an original score by Alexandre Desplat. As a whole, it is at once suitably dramatic and mysterious just like The Tree of Life itself.

As Mr. O’Brien, Brad Pitt shows us more of the unpredictability he offered in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There’s a harder edge to him in his dramatic scenes contrasted with a warmth and a protectiveness born of fatherhood. Jessica Chastain is a little harder to get a bead on as Mrs. O’Brien. The character tends to fall into the background whenever her husband is around, only to spring forward in a flash of color and playfulness when she’s alone with her sons. She tries to be the disciplinarian, but she just doesn’t have it in her and the boys know it. A special word too should be reserved for the believable, lived-in and naturalistic performances of newcomers Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as the three O’Brien sons. These are wide-eyed, desentimentalized portrayals of childhood and they are fantastic.

Those who already love Malick will likely rally behind the film while those who find him pretentious will only have their opinions amplified by The Tree of Life. I tend to approach him cautiously and on a film by film basis. While I was hoping for an emotional ride that was as captivating as the philosophical journey, I can’t wait to revisit the film and argue about it with other people. I look forward to peeling back its layers and exploring its mysteries. I don’t know if I’ll find anything inside it, but I wish more filmmakers would take the chances that Malick has taken.


The Tree of Life. USA 2011. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Original music by Alexandre Desplat. Edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa. Production design by Jack Fisk. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan and Fiona Shaw. 2 hours 18 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13. 5 stars (out of 5)

40 Responses to “The Tree of Life (2011)”

  1. sounds great. look forward to seeing it

  2. I can’t wait until you do. It’s not the kind of movie that can live in a vacuum. It needs to be discussed and argued over and watched again and discussed some more.

  3. Wow. Glad you loved it this much.

    I’m not going to read the review until after I see it a few months from now. I am, however, aware that there were several bad reactions to this movie. Sounds like this is a movie that will divide people. Those are often the best kinds.

  4. “Sounds like this is a movie that will divide people. Those are often the best kinds.”

    Yes and yes. It’s clearly not a movie meant to appeal to everyone. And I think you’re wise to not read anything about it. There aren’t any spoilers to be had, but I saw it without so much as having seen a frame of the trailer and part of the fun was of discovery.

  5. Your first five star review of 2011.

    That says it all now doesn’t it.

    I am assuming it will be opening this coming Friday, if I’m correct.

    Magnificent review, I’ll pass a link of it on right now by e mail!!!!

  6. It opens on May 27.

    As you know star ratings are a tricky business. I’m discounting it a teeny bit because it didn’t impact me as strongly as it might have on first viewing, but I’m crediting it for pure ambition and for going places moves just don’t go anymore. I reserve the right at some future time to rethink my opinion if it turns out the thing really doesn’t reach what it’s aiming for. I feel like it does, but for now I haven’t put it all together.

  7. I received your link from Sam Juliano. He wasn’t kidding when he said this is a great review. My hat’s off to you! And now to go see the movie.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to read it, Laurie (and thanks to Sam for the plug). I hope you’ll be as taken with the movie as I was.

  9. Your review has made me even more excited Craig. The film opens next Friday in NYC. I plan to see it as soon as possible. Great writing!!!

  10. Wow, you sure whet the appetite with this eloquent review. I’ve always been most enamored with the ‘experienced and felt’ dimension of Malick’s movies so I’m really intrigued by the prospect of his shifting towards greater abstraction. Malick’s work has always been more poetry than prose to me.

  11. Based on your review (nicely done, btw!), I’m looking forward to seeing it. I sort of wish I hadn’t read it because the trailer had me thinking the movie would be something else and it would have been interesting going into it with a completely different notion than what your review depicts. On the other hand, your take on things is always interesting and I enjoyed the review!

  12. Maurizio, I hope you’ll come back and let me know how it played. I’m expecting this one to divide even Malick fans.

    Sartre, if that abstract aspect of Malick appeals to you, then this ought to be your cup of tea. Then again, I’m not sure if he’s managed the balance between concrete and abstract as well here as he did in Days of Heaven. I’m not sure that’s a problem, but it’s something to think about.

    G9, generally I always like to see something before I read about it, but on the other hand sometimes it’s good to know what you’re in for. If you go in expecting one thing, a movie like this could really throw you for a loop, but…well, you never know.

  13. So… It isn’t science-fiction?

    That’s a bummer.

  14. No it’s really not, though it has sci-fi elements. It’s more interested in humanity. It uses sci-fi to place humanity in context.

  15. Can’t wait. Though I’m sure I’ll have to. I can’t imagine this getting a terribly wide release.

    Nice writin’, as usual. Thrilled it captured your imagination and intellect so much, even as anticipated as it was. That’s a good sign.

  16. I look forward to watching it a few more times.

  17. Apparently, so does the Cannes jury! That tree has a shiny new Palme d’Or hanging from its branches.

  18. Much as I loved the film myself, i’m actually a little surprised. I had my money on the Dardennes flick

  19. For anyone seeing this movie after the fact and looking for discussion, a pretty decent one popped up on the weekend forecast opening weekend:


    I’m going to try and continue my responses to those comments here in the review thread.

    Bob, I’m a little surprised you bothered if you’ve been so burned by Malick in the past. I get he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you already know that, then what was it you were looking for this time? I disagree with you about the music since I think it’s integral to the film itself. The movie plays like music and the musical choices enforce that.

    Mostly I’m surprised though by your reaction to the family at the core of the story. That’s what really made the movie work for me. It was a dead on capturing of my own experience growing up. Not verbatim, the circumstances, geography and era were different for me, but the dynamic between the characters was almost painfully familiar. It rooted the film and gave me something to hang on to in some of the film’s fruity flights of fancy.

    Ari I haven’t seen it a second time yet, that’s for this afternoon I think. I’m really curious how the ending will play for me. The first time it wasn’t enough, but in thinking about it afterward it works so we’ll see.

  20. Craig, I went to see it because I’m always, or at least often, hoping to find a way “in” to the directors I don’t like. It’s happened frequently enough that in the past I manage to find a film or two to admire by a director I see as overrated (I don’t like the majority of Hitchcock, but I love “Rope”), or even find myself capable of changing my mind about them (it took me until “Secret Honor” and “Tanner ’88” to get into Altman). Occasionally I’ll have to let a film I don’t care much for grow on me, as happened with Godard and “Alphaville”, thus paving the way for me to enjoy his whole body of work. I’ve even managed to convert occasional viewers myself by showing them lesser known stuff by directors they start out disliking– Lucas’ “THX 1138” blows people’s minds whenever I put it on for them, and more often than not they come out of it with a newfound appreciation for the more commercial stuff that came after.

    So with Malick, I’m still not convinced that he’s as great as everybody says, but I’m always optimistic that my mind might be changed, at least somewhat. And this film looked like it had as much a chance of doing that as anything, especially when you factor in the notion that it had effects by old-school maestro Douglas Trumbull. So I gave it a chance, I went in with an open mind, and if it weren’t for the family stuff that you’re connecting to on such a personal level, I might’ve walked out with a somewhat more positive opinion.

    Me? I couldn’t see any of my own life in that family, really. Granted, nearly every detail of their dynamic is different from how I grew up. Even ignoring the time and location differences– my parents were a little older, both working, tied to both extened families fairly well (I kept wondering– do they have any relatives, in this film? It’s so insular, so trapped in its own little snowglobe), neither of them as naive or dictatorial as the rather boring parental party-lines drawn up in here. Church was mildly important in my household, but politics has always been my family’s real religion (at the age that young Penn was blowing up frogs and shooting his little brothers, I was reading Doonesbury and trying to follow in Trudeau’s footsteps). I’ve got a little sister instead of having any brothers. Hell, I even grew up with cats instead of a dog, man, so the family on the screen there is one that I really only know from the conjecture of fiction, which makes them nothing but thin signifiers for me.

    If it looks like what you grew up with, I can understand being able to project all your own experiences there to fill in the gaps that the movie leaves, but for me it’s an utterly alien, and therefore insubstantial experience. I had a better time identifying with “Film Socialisme” and its Navajo English subtitles.

  21. I meant to add you deserve credit for trying, I sounded like kind of a dick in my comment and I didn’t mean it that way.

    I can see too where if the core story (such as it was) didn’t grab you, the rest of it probably isn’t going to work either. I liked the balance of it, the way Pitt’s character was scary, but not really a monster. He genuinely wanted the best for his wife and kids, but he also demanded a level of control that got the better of him. I saw the same scenario play out with my own father who clashed constantly with my older brother. At the same time, Jessica Chastain’s character proved she wasn’t so great when it came to the discipline thing. Her love was boundless, but in her own way did as much to harm the kids as the father. Somewhere there’s a balance in there and I think that’s what the movie was going for.

    The other part that appealed to me though was the idea that the people in our lives are more important than this idea of an infinite universe and maker. I know the film is bleeding with spiritual sentiment and that’s in keeping with what we know of Malick, but I couldn’t help but feel like he’s tired of these bigger cosmic questions and turning back to his own life and experience and the people around him for real meaning.

    Plenty of people are focusing on the rise and fall in the garden of eden story, the loss of innocence, that infused Badlands and especially The New World but also Thin Red Line and even Days of Heaven, and yes obviously it’s called Tree of Life for a reason, but still in an odd way I think this might be his most down-to-earth movie thematically, even if it’s his loosest narratively.

    Honestly though? For better or for worse I don’t have the ability to be able to definitively judge it after only one viewing. I plan to see it again soon and I’m open to the idea my opinion of it might change. I’m not ready to carve it in stone just yet, but so far I’m liking the conversations it’s inspiring.

    Also, sadly, I was definitely more into blowing stuff up at that age. Not frogs, but battleship models and perhaps the occasional slug. No boy genius, this one.

  22. Well, I wasn’t making much of a point on blowing-stuff-up or not, as I was about growing up in an intensely political house, versus the isolated unit portrayed on film. The main thing I kept thinking while watching those scenes with the roving packs of boys was– thank god I grew up in the time of Nintendo.

    More to the point, it’s that disconnect from the larger world in the Waco scenes that in many ways makes the film rather unreachable for me. There’s no mention of politics, no presence of television or radio (aside from the car), barely any presence of print, and precious little acknowledgement of anybody who doesn’t live under the household roof. It’s a picture of family as the world entire, and one that’s increasingly claustrophobic as the movie goes on. Yeah, that might be the point, but when it’s something you don’t relate to personally, it’s hard to find it as anything other than unrealistic.

    Brad Pitt– I never found him frightening, or even really intimidating as the father. A little pathetic, yeah, with his caricature of failed-musician waxing over classical composers and looking mildly ridiculous in those hats of his. But other than that, nothing. I had a hard time understanding what had attracted Jessica Chastain’s character to him. I found her interesting, but really not a fully fleshed character of her own; I suspect that if Malick had embelished her any further it might’ve risked having to make good on all the slight Oedipal leanings in the later part of the film.. Mostly, I kept thinking that her character would’ve made more sense if she had pointy ears.

  23. I think the family is meant to stand in for a certain small-town, midwestern type of that era,and as I said that resonated with me.

    Frightening for Pitt is maybe a bad word, but when I was little my dad, and indeed all my friend’s dads, were kind of scary. They were sort of these mysterious creatures who only came home at night and they were vaguely threatening. They were the disciplinarians.

    There’s also that scene where Pitt is napping on the couch and one of the kids lets the door slam and he flips out on him. That was a scene replayed time and time again in the Kennedy household. Dad’s napping and everyone has to walk around on egg shells. Not that there’s specifically a deeper meaning to that scene, but it’s a bit of color that made that whole family situation click for me.

    What drew Chastain to Pitt’s character in the first place? It’s hard to say, but I could say the exact same thing about my mom and dad. These things are unknowable when you’re a little kid.

    Pitt was less a failed musician, but someone who had given up on music in favor of something more concrete, but it turned out he wasn’t much good at that either. Kind of a sad character if you ask me.

    Also. His obsession with the lawn is totally my dad in another nutshell.

    Again, I’m not trying to browbeat you into changing your opinion, just trying to clarify what it is that worked for me about the movie.

  24. I think you’re centering in on one of the differences, and one that’s likely to affect how people think of the film– where they’re from, and what the generational mindset was like in that area for them. I’m a New Yorker, growing up in Westchester of the 80’s and 90’s, so the values are going to be very different than growing up in the mid-west, especially in any earlier period. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but my dad was MUCH more easy going about stuff in the household when I was younger. Talk to him about Reagan or one of the Bushes and things would be different, but that’s something else entirely. I’m wondering if more of the metropolitcan/suburban areas, especially on the East Coast, are gonna have a hard time getting into this film.

  25. I’m not of the generation this movie depicts and my family situation is entirely different from the O’Brien’s in this movie, yet everything still felt relatable and moving to me. But I believe the unknowable things for the audience is purposeful, because as Craig stated, those issues are sometimes mysterious as a kid, and the film is largely from their perspective. I think the point was to bring the audience into their state of mind.

    I also wondered what Chastain’s character saw in Pitt, but I also took it from the brief images of their youth together that he was probably a charming, handsome guy in the air force, which probably appealed to her, and she was like a dream to him. And when he was younger, before having a family, he was ambitious (music and such). It’s not until the kids are older, around 10 – 12 years-old, that it seems like the tension rises between parents and children, much like it often does.

    also, I have to agree with Craig on the use of music. I thought the birth of the universe sequence was especially magnificent with operatic music and that desplat’s original stuff mixed well with all the other classical pieces Malick used.

  26. I’m not saying you have to be of the same Boomer generation that this movie portrays, or that you have to be of the same mid-western locale. I’m saying that the farther you get from both of those things, the more tension arises between the viewer and the life that’s represented up on the screen. If you’re not already suited to Malick’s rhythms, all you’ve got is the family as a foothold into the movie, and if you can’t relate to that type of family on a personal level, the difficulties multiply. It’s not just that I didn’t grow up with parents like these– I didn’t grow up knowing anybody else with this type of upbringing, either. The worst-case-scenario where I grew up might’ve been a home broken by divorce, or uncaring yuppie-parents who barely made the time to even know their kids and wound up delegating those duties mostly to nannies or babysitters. This is the nightmare of a family from the Hemingway mold, whereas I was more familiar with the Salinger model.

  27. Bob, I think it’s geographic as well as a person’s era. I grew up in Seattle in the 1970s and 80s which is not Waco in the 1950s, but both of my parents were raised in the 30’s and 40s in the Midwest as Pitt’s character would have been and their sensibility carried over. I actually wondered while watching it if the film would have the same kick for people who grew up with much more liberal and forgiving parents.

    Like Ari says, I can picture Pitt’s character once being a nicer, more charming guy. Kids change you and for him I’m sure he was a great dad when they were little and obedient, it’s just when they start to push back that it becomes a problem, especially from the one that is most like him.

  28. “It’s a God’s eye view of the universe and it puts into context the cosmically minor concerns of one family and their ups and downs. But to those individuals, from their perspective, the events that happen to them are everything.”

    I’m still ruminating on this and probably will be well into the next week (because holy mother of pearl, there’s a lot to think about in this picture), but I think these two sentences might hit the nail on the head. An asteroid impacting the Earth is as significant as a telegram in The Tree of Life. It’s just that simple, and I think Malick’s intent with that sequence is to show the immense power, awe, and beauty of everything that occurs within it but to then compare it to the world of this family, who will experience their own miracles, their own awe and beauty, mostly contained not within the broad expanse of the universe but within a small Texas neighborhood. If I read it correctly, then damn, that’s quite a statement.

    And the scene set way back in time, next to a river, as a creature discovers and (maybe) momentarily ponders the fragility of life, or at the very least is perplexed by death, was wonderful.

    I don’t think the bookends completely work for me, but everything else is quite amazing and beautiful. And before I forget to mention, excellent review, Craig.

  29. “An asteroid impacting the Earth is as significant as a telegram in The Tree of Life. It’s just that simple.”

    Joel I think that sums it up much better than I did. That’s the whole thing, that telegram was the end of the world in a way for that family. It’s utterly meaningless in the big cosmic picture, but if it happens to us, it’s all that matters. yet we’re consumed with questions about what it all means when maybe the answer is right in front of us.

    This movie to me feels like Malick making piece with that idea. most reviewers seem to focus on his religious musings, but I can’t get away with the idea that this movie is moving away from religion. There’s no comfort ultimately in the cosmic or even in the idea of “gods will” which is something that’s always thrown around in times of trauma. Malick seems to be saying “Hey, you know what? Everything you need is all around you. Hang on to it and appreciate it.”

    Let me add that I’m glad the movie worked on you even if you had a few issues. If a person doesn’t have issues with the movie, they’re just not trying hard enough, but I like that for the most part it got you going.

  30. Malick has been struggling with his spirituality via his films since the beginning of his career, but he hasn’t been this direct about it since Days of Heaven. However, I agree that the film seems less concerned with God or with Heaven as it is with the individual’s relationship and uncertainty about a higher power.

    I don’t think the beach sequence is about Jack’s Heaven or purgatory, but about his remorse and fear that he has made the wrong choices in his life. We hear him as a child whispering his uncertainties and his concerns to a God who doesn’t directly respond. Jack is left to his own devices, which is what I think Malick ultimately concedes to the audience in relationship to this film. There are no simple answers or direction to be given from the director (who, in relation to the film itself, acts as “god”). You must decide for yourself how to deal with all of this.

  31. “I don’t think the beach sequence is about Jack’s Heaven or purgatory, but about his remorse and fear that he has made the wrong choices in his life.”

    I agree that it’s probably not meant to represent heaven. It’s one of the more simplistic assumptions about the film I think are missing the point. What the beach is exactly I’m not sure, though I tend to think it represents the culmination of all our lives.

  32. I just saw this movie today finally and thought it was fantastic. It’s a beautiful film all around, and the portrayal of the family and their dynamic is stunning. And I think it’s one of Brad Pitt’s best performances – I like that you’ve compared it to his very under-rated and under-appreciated performance in TAoJJbtCRF. This, along with that role, is one of my favorites of his.

    There is a lot to absorb about the movie and I’m sure I will have much more to say about it as I’ve had time to think about it. Your review is terrific though, and really nails so much of what’s amazing about this film.

    On a side note I saw this with my mom and although she didn’t hate it she said it wasn’t her cup of tea and that whatever message Brad Pitt and Sean Penn were trying to convey it was lost on her. And yet we were discussing the movie over dinner for an hour, which I pointed out to her. :-)

  33. Whatever anyone thinks about the movie, and I accept some people just aren’t going to dig it, I think you have to give a nod to Pitt. He was fantastic.

    Funny your mom wasn’t buying it, and yet had an hour’s worth of convo in her about it! So many movies just come and go and they’re instantly forgotten. For better or for worse, this one is worth talking about.

  34. I’m glad you enjoyed it Alison, and I hope your Mom walked away with something to hold onto even if the overall experience was oft-putting.

    I found the beginning and ending of the film (especially the ending) difficult to get into (or get) on both occasions that I saw Tree of Life, yet I found the discussions online regarding the ending fascinating. I think even if someone hates this film there’s going to be things to discuss afterwards in depth. I know the film has its vocal detractors, but the middle section is so evocative and moving that I can’t fault it. There are a few random moments in that section that feel forced and unnecessary (the clown, the scenes in the attic, and Mother floating in the air), but I wouldn’t change a second of that whole section. It is incredibly honest, heartfelt, and fantastic.

  35. I’m seeing it tomorrow (yay for family cookouts in Little Rock!), my indie for Independence Day. Looking forward to being able to weigh in here.

  36. I totally need to see this again as I keep saying I will. I was perfectly at peace with the ending which seems to be the most controversial part among people who generally dig Malick, but didn’t dig the film.

    To me the ending was less of a “heaven” and more of a representation of an entire lifetime of relationships as if Malick is suggesting that’s all we really have in the end. Our lives, our experiences, the people we love (or hate). The ending encapsulated that idea. It was less about “we’ll be with our loved ones in heaven” which if you ask me is a cop out, and more about the full experience of our loves being what’s important for better or for worse.

  37. I watched The Tree of Life Saturday and it’s an impressive and somewhat disappointing work of art. It’s likely — and the five editing credits would seem to back this up — that Malick’s vision was either muddled from the start or lost in the course of assembling the film. As interesting as the beginning and ending segments are, both feel underdeveloped. To me, they felt tacked on, as if the studo had already financed the special effects and just said what the hell, let’s toss them in the pot. The middle segment, of course, is an effective and mostly self-contained 90-ish minute film unto itself.

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of the scenes with adult Jack got left on the cutting room floor. In the few scenes Sean Penn is a part of it, it’s clear that he never really got past the mindset he developed in adolescence. But it would’ve been a better film, I think, had Malick explored that character more fully in the final cut. It would have given more emotional punch to that surreal ending. As it is, the Penn scenes (and the creation scenes, too) feel somewhat removed from the rest of the film. There’s not enough connective tissue there to make the film seem like a cohesive whole.

    I imagine somewhere out there, a three hour director’s cut is just waiting to be unleashed upon the world. Assuming the Penn scenes weren’t removed for another reason (i.e. an iffy performance or a superfluous subplot), that’s a film I’d like to see. As it is, The Tree of Life is an impressive film.

    Although some of the camera movement and scene cutting seemed a little arbitrary, Lubezki did a fantastic job at capturing some stunning images. Pitt and the child actors’ performances were deeply affecting. One of the last scenes, in which Mr. O’Brien tries to explain to Jack why he does what he does, really got to me. It’s not entirely realistic. It’s more of a wish fulfillment thing, but as a viewer and a human I can relate to both the parent and child. And Chastain does an interesting, understated thing as the mother. In scenes with her husband, she’s a little distant, a little reserved. When she’s alone with the kids, she shows her kind, fun-loving side.

    I can’t really fault The Tree of Life too much for its “failings.” It is what it is. But, if it were up to me, I’d want more family dynamics and less dinosaurs. That’s why it’s so difficult to give this film a pat qualitative assessment. What it does well, it does tremendously well. And what it “fails” at are the kinds of things that most films or filmmakers never attempt.

  38. And I realize the dinosaur statement is unfair. To my recollection, the CGI dinosaurs take up about 1-2 minutes of the 139-minute run time. I wouldn’t want Malick to remove those awe-inspiring sequences of the cosmos and creation, but the final cut of the film didn’t do enough to justify their presence. So, I guess what I’m asking for is an even longer film, which is something I rarely wish for.

  39. It will be interesting to see if Malick ever let’s the rumored 6-hour cut see the light of day.

    I’m fine with the dinosaur bits. I haven’t entirely resolved where he was going with them, but I have my ideas and I’ve continued to think about it in the month or so since I saw the film.

    You could remove the cosmos aspects, but then you’d have a fairly ordinary (though penetrating and effective) family drama. You’d also probably have a more popular and less controversial film. I’m glad Malick is swinging for the fences even if the end result isn’t quite what anyone seems to want.

  40. Saw it. Love it. Still processing it.

    Jessica Chastain was amazing.

    First impression gives it 5 stars, just for the sheer beauty and ambition and yeah, again, the beauty of it. I have much more ruminating to do about it, which is a good sign.

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