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The Tree of Life: Beautiful, Frustrating, Sad but Flawed

Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Release Date: July 8, generic 2011 (Wide Release)
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Actors: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan

Quite honestly, I wanted to love this film. I love films that challenge my thinking, send me to self reflection and offer some deep meaning. However, despite all its abstract images and beautiful cinematography, I walked out hating it.

Possibly Malick’s most personal piece, with similarities into his own childhood, “The Tree of Life” is a film that challenges the film industry and will be recognized for taking huge risks. I’ve allowed a few days after seeing the film before writing this review so my thoughts could sink in and I could give a more fair review than my initial reaction.

“The Tree of Life” tries to ask questions that are bigger than itself, and is the depiction of Jack’s internal struggle with life and the meaning of his life, love and death. The overall theme of the film deals with living either the way of nature or the way of grace, and how despite taking either path, the lord will giveth and the lord will taketh away (aka “Why do bad things happen to good people?”) One could say that “The Tree of Life” is essentially the Book of Job. That God does because he can and we suffer because we do at the hand of God, to not question God because he has a purpose.

“The Tree of Life” fails in perhaps in trying to do too much for one film. Exploring the big bang, creationism with a few scenes involving dinosaurs, learning about mercy, “the way of grace”, a glimpse of the ice age and into the story of the O’Briens, and then presented with elder Jack having what seems like a moment of enlightenment is too much to put into one film to deal with well. However, I hear Malick is planning to do a 6 hour cut of the film, if people are okay with the onslaught of repetitive scenes to get the rest of the story.

The overlying theme, presented in the very beginning is the way of grace vs the way of nature (as mentioned before). Jessica Chastain, who plays the mom, depicts the way of grace, teaching her sons love, compassion, to be at one with your surroundings and all the living life around you. Brad Pitt plays the strict father who teaches his son the way of nature, of being strong, that trying your best will serve to be fruitful, and that going against the grain is the way to succeed. He has certain moments of tenderness but doesn’t fully know how to raise his kids or to show them he loves them. His sons deal very heavily with their father, often scared of him, especially Jack, who eventually rebels and slowly starts to lose his innocence. As he grows older, there is an internal struggle of the teachings between his father and his mother, finding that he is more like his father which troubles him. Sean Penn who plays the older Jack is shown being depressed, contemplating his life, trying to find himself and reaches a revelation of sorts, an enlightenment that comes to term with his past and his family that allows him to let go.

“Tree of Life” is really those thoughts – a bunch of fragmented ideas that people ponder about how they fit into life and their struggles come to life on film. Malick chose to film the chaotic thoughts and struggles with life, with a story about Jack’s upbringing and “coming of age” at an extremely important crossroads of his life in which he grows into himself and will either be more influenced by his mother or his father. It is a film about hope and happiness. Simply put however, “The Tree of Life” is a film that can be interpreted a countless number of ways and is one where the experience you take away is the goal that Malick wants to achieve than the film itself.

Though this seems like a terribly deep film, I don’t believe it is at all. The “Tree of Life” just appears to be, with the constant flashes of the sun peering through the trees, the lapping of the ocean waves, the flicker of a candle, the clouds floating..over and over again. From my point of view, each scene is beautiful, yet together represents noise, with the constant display of same scenes of nature almost beating the ideas into my head that Malick believes he is trying to show in a subtle manner. Though the theme is simple, due to the frantic, almost fantastical imagery of emotion through eyes of nature, “Tree of Life” becomes a chore, lost in abstraction.

In fact, some of it, especially in the creationism scenes combined with the overwrought operatic music of Preisner’s Lacrimosa downright offended me. I have a great love for classical music and opera but the dramatic-ism in the music playing loudly as the earth was created with the volcanoes spewing and single cell organisms combining was just too much for me. Had it been with a different choice of music, I might have appreciated it more. Again, I didn’t want it beaten over my head that I was watching something that was amazing. We’re talking creationism here, which should speak for itself. I think I would have preferred another Lacrimosa – say, Mozart’s Requiem Lacrimosa. On the other hand, the music choice of Smetana’s Vltava fits perfectly with the mood of the film, much more subtle, whimsical, allowing one to breathe the imagery being presented without feeling as though the “big ideas” are being forced by the aid of repetitive ascending operatic crescendos.

I believe “The Tree of Life” would better be received if shown at art museums because it fits better with much of the modern art currently displayed in modern art museums. Malick’s greatest gift is knowing how to film a scene, especially when he is able to fully capture the spirit of childhood and what it is like to look through the eyes of a child – one feels as though they are somewhat reliving their own childhood in the section with Hunter McCraken’s Jack. (Well, if I were a boy). His use of wide angle lenses gave the sense that the world around him was huge – and was filled with wonder for him to explore with his brothers, with the aid of grand wonderful choices of classical music. If there is anything to credit “The Tree of Life”, it is a fantastic palate of classical music. I wouldn’t mind at all owning this soundtrack… minus Preisner’s Lacrimosa.

However, as I backtrack, once you put all these pieces together, you don’t really have a film, instead you are asking your audience to have an experience through abstract art – much like looking at a cubic painting of Picasso, or one step further, a Mondrian painting – where you seriously have to dig deep to interpret his art. I made the mistake of not researching enough about the film and had only seen the absolutely gorgeous trailer prior to stepping in the theatre. I tend to avoid reading about films going in, save for critic’s ratings and not being all that familiar with Malick’s works, I realized afterward that this was a film I needed to see on IMAX and that I should have been in the right mood — of visiting a museum — before seeing this. It didn’t help either that the person behind me had to clear her throat every two seconds. This is a hard film to immerse yourself in and any distractions will surely bring you out of it.

The ending failed on so many levels personally and ended abruptly in its story (for a film that has an incredibly slow pace, that says a lot.) Full of repetition, little exploration of the life that led up to where we now see Jack as Sean Penn is given. We are not shown the guilt he may have felt with his brother’s death, we are only given a moment that could be described as cathartic , a moment of peace in which everyone comes together to a place to love, to let go, to find happiness, whether or not it be a place of enlightenment, after life, or death of the planet. We are given little to understand this older self reflective and conflicted Sean Penn which furthers the confusion of the ending. (And the constant fade to black sure gave a lot of false endings). He has shown that he has obviously grown more to be his father – living in an extravagant home, with little closeness with his girlfriend, and a difficult relationship with his father. The last few moments of the film show a certain completeness that he has come to term with. This is supposed to be a happy ending, but the overall emotion I left with was depression and sadness, but mostly of melancholy.

The acting overall is terrific. However, don’t walk in expecting a Brad Pitt film. He disappears into his role as Mr. O’Brien. Jessica Chastain is beautiful in every frame, especially since she is presented as the way of grace. However, the real star is Hunter McCracken who plays Jack O’Brien as a boy. You take the world as he does, quiet, pensive, with boiling hatred towards his father and with the struggles of life. His brothers are played by Laramie Eppler (who looks like he really could be Brad Pitt’s son) and Tye Sheridan, who are endearing and loveable as Jack’s brothers.

For such a personal piece from Malick, I felt very disconnected from the film. Though everything was beautiful to look at with wonderful sentiments and grand ideas, it was just too much at once and could have been split into two films. The repetitive scenes of nature and the annoying whispers could have been cut, the whispers changed into a normal soft spoken voice. It was irritating and altogether too pretentious. People hate that word these days, but the definition is: Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. I think “Tree of Life” walked a fine line, and for the reasons I outlined above, I do think it became self-important with ideas that are not unbeknownst to the population, and often got carried away with the beautiful images.

I can only give this movie 2/5, one, for the truly magnificent camera work that I think is unmatched, as almost every frame in the film is worthy of well… being framed. And two, for the ambitious risk Malick took to getting the film made, produced and seen, so much so that if nothing else, it has garnered such interesting philosophical discussion like no other film I have seen in recent years. The interpretations by people who love this film are far more interesting than “The Tree of Life” itself. I believe this speaks to its abstract/modern art like quality.

Whether you may find “Tree of Life” pretentious and self indulgent, or life changing and magnificent, it is a film worthy of giving a try (even if you may end up walking out.) It’s the kind of film that begs for polarizing opinions and relishes in them. With such an ambitious nature and its desire to portray grandiose themes of life, death and love, it deserves at least that much.

For me, it’s a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Lots to love, more to hate. Having said that, I may give this film another go when I’m in a more “receiving” state of mind, and I would highly recommend that if you’re going to see “The Tree of Life” that you wait until you’re in the same state as well.

Recommended, solely on the notion that I believe everyone should give this movie a chance – and only if you like challenging films and enjoy going to museums. If you’re the kind that ONLY likes action and dialogue, or a linear story, I say skip this. 2 bursts of sunlight / 5 bursts of sunlight.

To further help you make your decision, a short clip that is from the creationism scene:
FoxSearchlight: Watch This: THE TREE OF LIFE shows you how the universe was born

Watch the Trailer:

Other Links:
The Full list of Music used in “The Tree of Life”

5 thoughts on “The Tree of Life: Beautiful, Frustrating, Sad but Flawed

  1. Very good review, it sums up what is flawed about The Tree of Life.

    I must say I felt offended in the cinema yesterday. And I understand the girl next to me who laughed out loud when the film closed – because it was pretentious in its over-dramatisation and indulgence in what the director regards as beautiful/graceful, because it was like a forced lesson in Christianity/creationism and because all this was stretched to 139mins. I have no problem at all with minimal narrative in film because film as a medium is not dependent on it. And while I like Malick's other films it didn't work out here, the film would have gained a lot from giving more insight into the story (the little that was there made it interesting). Thinking about it now, what probably offends me most is the literal way in which Malick seeks to interpret beauty/ grace/evolution/nature. Like he thought the audience is too dumb to get it in a subtle way and he therefore has to take us on a tour with the discovery channel, playing a bit of Mahler alongside the erupting volcano so we know that this is something beautiful; a typical flaw of US American / Hollywood cinema in general, and something I've come to hate about it. An attribute I would recommend the director for his next project is, above all, modesty. Shindo's The Naked Island, a 50 year old minimal, non-sentimental black and white movie, depicts much better how beauty and pain go hand in hand in life as a hard working family loses a son without any 'wrongdoing'.

    Certainly Malick's worst film. It also shows that often, when directors are able to do their work without any restraint, the outcome is not the best.

  2. On the good side, the depiction of the relationship between the family members was, despite the general pathos of the film, compelling, and the major strength of the film. Especially the relationship between the brothers, and the struggling emotions of the eldest towards his tough father, was sincere, and probably something many of us sons (certainly I) can identify with. It offered some honest insight (by Malick's own experience?) of the difficulty of being a good father and provider for your family. The overall framing of the film of Jack's love for his dead brother and how, through the memory of him, his death was not meaningless, unfortunately wasn't really able to shine through in midst of the cliched imagery, which is a shame because it really provides the basis for what could have been Malick's masterpiece.

  3. Beautifully rendered, melancholy, at times over-the-top (I'm thinking about the two shots of a mask underwater).

    Not the ideal film for someone (like me) who grew up in an unhappy home. Enough said.

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