The Tree of Life (2011)

This collage poster is such a true representation of this film.

Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan

Directed by Terrence Malick

Expectations: Low. I don’t consider myself a Malick fan. I hated The Thin Red Line so much that it took fourteen years to even consider watching another of his films.

Within the first few minutes of The Tree of Life, I knew exactly how I’d feel about it when I arrived at the ending. I’ve only seen one Malick film prior to this, The Thin Red Line, and I thought it was an unintelligible mess. I was a teenager on a full diet of Hong Kong action films though, so lately I’ve thought that a re-watch as a thoughtful adult would reveal a better film. Cue the release of Malick’s latest film The Tree of Life, allowing me to give him another shot without the pain of re-watching something I previously despised. I knew I was in for a bad ride though, when only a few minutes into the film I got the same, confused feeling I had all those years ago in a cinema watching The Thin Red Line, wondering how the images on-screen were supposed to coalesce into meaning.

The Tree of Life‘s plot isn’t really one to bang out into a single paragraph at first glance, but on reflection there isn’t much of a plot. There’s also no real scenes in the classic sense. Or dialogue. The Tree of Life is probably the most high-profile experimental film of all time. It all opens with the death of Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain’s kid, one of their three boys. Which one we don’t know, or if we do, I missed it. We then connect with Sean Penn, another of their children, now all grown up. Penn thinks back to his childhood and before you know it, we’re watching a nearly fifteen minute sequence depicting the creation of the universe before we jump into the real film at Penn’s character’s birth.

OK, so while watching, none of this shit made sense. The two most popular questions I asked my television were, “What the fuck?” & “How does this relate to anything?” After a few days, the film still doesn’t completely reveal itself, but it is definitely coming together in my head. Slight understanding doesn’t change my opinion of the film (if anything it makes me think less of it), but it is interesting. If this film really is about living your life in harmony & with love as the ending suggests, then why is the film so detached and cold? At some point I was supposed to jump into the nameless characters as if they were my personal surrogates and feel their feelings as my own, but without any connection to them, that never happened. I think the film actually has narrative and dramatic potential too. There are moments of Penn’s childhood that I relate to directly, more than I care to reveal here. I remember feeling exactly as the characters do on-screen, but because of Malick’s fractured & pretentious storytelling, the moments come without any tension or weight behind them and they fail to resonate when they should have been slamming home in grand style. And that’s where The Tree of Life falls flat as a film for me. Malick merely presents slices from a life and the audience is supposed to fill in the specifics and the dramatic gaps with their own feelings and tension from their past. You might as well add yourself to the credits of the film, because you are an integral part of the puzzle. It’s admirable in a way, but ultimately unsuccessful if you don’t buy into this notion right from the get-go. I have no problem thinking while watching a film, but shouldn’t the director hold up his end of the bargain as well?

As an adult, Sean Penn works within a tall, steel building made of harsh lines and angles. He doesn’t look happy with himself or with his place in the world. He’s clearly gone away from nature/harmony/love. Something (if it was there, I missed it) triggers his memory to think back on his childhood, although for some unexplained reason he first traces the path of the universe and life on Earth. Some may argue that this allows the viewer to consider the smallness and insignificance of a human life, but for me it was disconnected and unnecessary. And I fuckin’ love dinosaurs. I mean, does Malick really wish me to mentally connect the dino that bullies a smaller dino by stomping on his head to Penn’s younger self shooting his weaker brother’s finger with a BB gun? And if so, what is to be gained from this connection? That all life is connected and that the same struggles have gone on since the dawn of time? OK, but how does this relate to or inform the experience and why does it take so long to say? Pretentious bullshit is what it is. And if that creation sequence isn’t pretentious, then I don’t know what is. It exists solely to add a superficial depth to the film, to trick confused people like myself into saying, “He’s working on a level above me. Malick must be a genius.” That being said, after reading a bit about Malick’s childhood, the film makes a lot more sense and is much more personal than it would seem while watching. I can respect this, and the ambition of the production, but I can’t help but feel that this is Malick’s film for himself instead of something intended for mass consumption.

A word on my tolerance of pretense. If something is awesome, I don’t give a fuck how pretentious it is. Case in point: Pete Townshend. Townshend is one of my favorite songwriters but he’s also one of the most pretentious and self-important in the business. It bugs at times, but I honestly don’t care because the end result is fucking awesome. So I would have no problem with Malick if there was actually something worth gaining from the experience of The Tree of Life, but for me there isn’t. The “point” of the film is simple and not enlightening to me in any way and Malick’s pretentious storytelling only obscures this message into an esoteric film that most won’t even watch past the thirty-minute mark. I can respect the ambition, but for non-vocal filmmaking as bold as this to be interesting, the images and the editing must be meaningful. When the audience is presented with a long sequence of events depicting the growth of a child but the specifics of these scenes don’t actually matter, it creates an illusion of meaning and depth when there is little.

I find no difference between pretentious film trash and exploitation film trash. Just because the director’s goals were art doesn’t immediately loft his film higher than another with “less honorable” ones. Film is an entertainment medium just as much as it is an art medium and films that forget this infuriate me to no end. I’ve heard this film compared to Kubrick’s 2001, one of my absolute most favorite films. While that film is perhaps even more esoteric and hard to initially understand, Kubrick had the skill and the wisdom to actually make the film’s individual scenes interesting and filled with dramatic tension. It works as entertainment and art simultaneously. I would have liked The Tree of Life much better (and perhaps even connected with it) if it had followed a traditional narrative, but I will say this: if you like it, be proud and like the shit out of it. I don’t expect every movie to be made for me, and this one definitely was not. So if you love it, love it. But for the record, I thought it was pretentious bullshit.

15 comments to The Tree of Life (2011)

  • I think anybody that sits through the full duration deserves a medal! Think you liked individual parts more than I did, but like you say – there’s not enough consistency or even simply just not enough of the story to keep anyone engaged and get them involved.

    Really enjoyed reading that firm but fair review.

    • I think anyone that can deeply connect with this one deserves the medal, because that’s a feat truly above and beyond.

      Glad you enjoyed the review. I did my best to be fair to what it was, while holding true to what I thought.

  • Mike_D

    I’m callin you out, Will.

    >>>I find no difference between pretentious film trash and exploitation film trash.

    There is a difference: you enjoy exploitation films.

    • Hahaha Mike, you kinda have me there but the fact that I enjoy exploitation films should be beside the point. If an exploitation film is incredibly trashy, it usually has some redeeming elements but ultimately it remains a shitty film (and my star ratings for them reflect this, there are tons of 1 1/2 or 2 star reviews of B-pictures I greatly enjoyed). The same is true of Tree of Life, but instead of trash being the fault, it’s pretense. There’s an imaginary scale in my head with pretense and trash being opposite ends. Anything that gets too extreme in either direction is usually too much for me.

      I love film of all kinds and if Tree of Life had been structured differently and more traditionally, I’m sure I would be singing its praises because it does have a lot that I would have related to. The fact that he’s got a quality emotional narrative that’s buried under pretense is just unforgivable to me.

  • I hated The Thin Red Line so much too. (?) Every time people rave on about how awesome Malick’s films are, this one included, I think I die a little inside.

    Glad to see you’re on the same wavelength as me. Malick makes pretentious wankers look like reasonable people.

    • Yeah my buddies and I all skipped school to check out the return to cinema from the great, hallowed master Malick we had been hearing so much about. None of us knew who he was, but we were big enough film nerds to skip school and drive an hour to the theater playing it. Oh man, the disappointment! I’m sure I’d get more out of it now, but that one experience was so strong I really have little interest in giving it another shot. I do have a desire to understand why everyone raves, so I’ll probably watch his 70s movies before anything else. I’ll wait a while though, don’t know that I could handle another of his films right now.

  • I actually really really like Malick and the Thin Red Line, but we all have our opinions. Anyway, awesome, awesome blog! Hope you can check mine out too.

  • Funny that you review this movie just now as I rented the DVD and watched it again a second time last night. It’s definitely a movie that can be a bit frustrating at times but to me, it’s an unforgettable cinematic experience and I do love this film despite its apparent flaws.

    • Perfect timing! Unforgettable is a great word for this film. As much as I was frustrated and annoyed by it, it is not a movie I will soon forget. One that can be discussed and debated over for hours, which is usually my sign of a great movie, but here I felt there were more missed opportunities and needless scenes than anything else. I would love to see a re-edit that moves more linearly, with actual scenes.

  • Mike_d

    Sounds like you could have reduced this whole review to just one word: Dumb.

  • Dan

    A very interesting, well-written review Will. I’ve yet to see this film so can’t comment on what I think of it but it is obviously quite a divisive piece of work. I wouldn’t call myself a huge Malick fan but he’s definitely a filmmaker who intrigues me despite him taking many years between projects. In regards to The Thin Red Line – I quite liked that one.

    • Thanks, Dan! Glad you liked the review. It’s easily the most divisive film in a very long time. As much as I don’t think it’s successful or very good, it’s incredibly impressive and I respect it a lot. I think if you enjoyed Thin Red Line, you’ll probably like this one as well.

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