Film Review “The Tree of Life”

Starring: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken and, if you don’t blink, Sean Penn
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 2 hours 18 mins
Fox Searchlight

Our Score: 2 out of 5 stars

In 1973 director Terrence Malick exploded onto the scene with the gritty film “Badlands.” He followed that up five years later with the beautifully photographed Oscar winner “Days of Heaven.” Then he disappeared. In 1998 he returned with a film called “The Thin Red Line,” which I best remember as a film with a lot of great actors walking through a jungle. 2005’s “The New World” featured Colin Farrell in a new telling of the Pocahontas story. And now he brings us a film that…I’m sorry, I really can’t explain it.

“There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” With these words we are greeted by images of small town America, circa 1950’s. A woman is in the kitchen when a telegram arrives. Wordlessly she opens it and then drops to the floor. What follows for the next two hours is the way of the world told through the Gospel of Terrence Malick. The film unravels in three parts. Part one deals with the creation of the world. Planets and dinosaurs and the Big Bang and polar ice caps, all rendered in big screen glory so beautiful that they should run it in IMAX. Part two is the best part of the film, dealing with the O’Brien family. Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is a loving dad who rules the house with equal parts love and discipline. He dotes on his three sons and demands the most of his oldest, Jack (McCracken). Jack is a lot like his dad, headstrong and compulsive. It is Jack that narrates this part of the film, often asking the questions all young boys have. When a young boy drowns he turns his questions to God, asking “where were You?” Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) looks on while the boys discover life, at the same time wondering about the road hers has taken her down. Part three is…well, like I said, you get a glimpse of Sean Penn.

While I was writing this I learned that “The Tree of Life” had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. For those unfamiliar this is the equivalent of winning the Best Picture Academy Award. I can only assume that the judges were all cinematographers awarding a film consisting of Kodak moments. To me the film was, at best, incoherent. Dozens of characters pass by but, as very few of them speak, you have no idea who they are or what their purpose is. And I found it funny to see a long cast of characters in the final credits because I couldn’t tell you who Mrs. Kimball, Mrs. Stone or Mr. Brown were if you offered me cash money. On the positive side, the period detail by Production Designer Jack Fisk, who has worked with Malick on every film, is stunning, as is the photography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick has always been a visual filmmaker and the fact that three of his four previous films have earned Oscar nods for their cinematography is not a surprise (“Days of Heaven” won). But pretty pictures are not enough to keep you interested for two plus hours.


  1. The only thing that keep me stick on my seat is the glorious nature elements which captured so beautifully. I agreed that this movie is an incoherent storyline played by expensive actors with a beautiful cinematography. During the movie i wondered if the weed that i smoked the night before is still kicking….

  2. What bothered me about this movie was how obnoxiously pretentious it was. All the beauty of the cosmos, the galaxies, the emergence of all the fantastically gorgeous biodiversity on earth…and then…a suburban white, middle class American family full of happy sunshine and butterflies and cliche voice-overs straight out of a New Age self-help book, complete with stereotypical caring mother and stern father and sons going through very shallowly portrayed Coming of Age Angst, only performed at epic, narcissistic proportions…and then, Sean Penn wandering through a cliche representation of the Afterlife, which looks more like those cheesy scenes in commercials for prescription anti-depressants.

    It’s so kitschy that it’s practically camp in its aesthetics to the point where I couldn’t stop laughing at the fabricated drama and faux-spirituality of the movie.

    If they cut out all the scenes involving humans, though, it would have made a fantastic nature documentary…

  3. I really wanted to like this film. Visually, it was fantastic. But what was the purpose and what was learned. It fell far short of providing any purpose or resolution. I finished the film with no sense of satisfaction, resolution or introspective urge to contemplate the course of my life. Just flat disappointment.

    Which way through life did the characters choose — nature or grace? How were the characters affected by their choice. Does anybody know?

    So the Sean Penn character was affected by his relationship with his father (and the gentleness of his mother). Is this a new theme for anybody? How did that affect Jack? He became a successful architect. Was that his wife? Were they unhappy? Did they have children and was Jack a “better” father? We get a fleeting glimpse of a disconnected relationship. Did his father cause that?

    30 years or so after the death of his brother (in war?), Jack walks aimlessly through the building and city while revisiting experiences as a boy 10 years before his brother died. Why? What revelation did the writer bring to Jack (us) via these memories about the meaning of life?

    Then, Jack his finally happy in the afterlife with his family. But his father is still alive. Is his mother and other brother dead? Is Jack dead? Did he overdose on the LSD he appeared to be under the influence of?

    Finally, we all can take away from this experience that life with a strict father and loving mother will be resolved by dwelling on all the sadness that life will throw your way and experiencing the beauty of the afterlife with your family and all the compassionate dinosaurs that allowed higher intelligence to form on earth. Because we are all a part of The Mythical Tree of Life. Hakuna Matata

    Please. Will one of you positive reviewers answer some of these questions for me since I am evidently too shallow to realize them on my own. I must admit extreme happiness that I only sunk $1.00 at Redbox for this movie. Thanks

  4. “Will one of you positive reviewers answer some of these questions for me since I am evidently too shallow to realize them on my own. I must admit extreme happiness that I only sunk $1.00 at Redbox for this movie”

    I tossed away $1.29. What pure garbage. An attempt to be great without ever pausing to be decent.

  5. I think that the reviewers here capture the problem with this movie very well. It is extremely pretentious, and it is largely incoherent.

    In a way, the incoherence of this movie is what the director (tries to make) its strength. He is trying to make a movie, that is a painting…open to interpretation. The questions it leaves unanswered are supposed to pique speculation and curiousity.

    The main character as a boy is sensitive and a good actor. Jessica Chastain is a great actress, and beautiful to look at. Pitt was fine, but I don’t get what all the fuss was about what he did in this movie.

    I agree that there is no insight to any of the characters and no story to speak of in this movie. The movie is like an elaborately wrapped packaged that, when finally opened, reveals only more fancy wrapping paper. It’s novelty is the cinematic equivalent of buying a pet rock…a nearly pointless conversation piece.

  6. Finally saw this movie today.

    What a waste of time…

    Felt to me like I was watching a collection of Windows Vista wallpapers. Pretty pictures, for sure, this movie is like Blue Planet + Brad Pitt. Except, Blue Planet didn’t need Brad Pitt to make us admire the beauty of nature.

    Anyway, I don’t understand the hype for this movie. At least Von trier’s Melancholia managed to put an actual plot over all those pretty images…

  7. I have never been so pissed off after watching a film in my entire life. I am serious. I graduated from UWM recently with a BA in film production (whoop dee doo). The only reason I’m stating this is because I am OBSESSED with film (along with music and novelists). The beginning of this film was so splendid I thought man I should have bought this instead of renting it. It was like an update of the “To Jupitor and Beyond” section in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then it was all down hill (or up hill if we want to make sense in terms of physics).

    Say what you will about 2001 but it said something about life, technology, and evolution. It was interpretive, but in a way that was enlightening and not utterly pretentious. Also while many can praise the cinematography in this film (and there are some beautiful images) there is only a few shots I would consider “perfect.” Kubrick may have been sort of an asshole, but every frame was meticulously painterly in framing and composition. I can’t stand people who obsess over Malick and then hate on directors like David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, or Fellini. These men create(d) worlds that transport(ed) you into their imaginations and, even if they don’t make all that much sense, you are happy to be in that place for the duration of t he film. The Tree of Life tries to say everything and ends up saying nothing about the human experience you couldn’t get from reading a few greeting cards. On the positive side, it made me feel better about my own work.

  8. Brew Schwayne says:

    How much melodrama can be stuffed into one film? It seems like there are a lot of people fooled into thinking this non-plot is really deep. Along with Von Trier, this new brand of ‘meaninglessness of life’ films doesn’t hold a candle to Art Films that actually examine what, if anything, is the meaning of existence (see Enter the Void or the Holy Mountain). What this piece of junk is is actually a shapeless plot dolled up with flashy effects, an art school graduate’s wank off equivalent to big budget action flicks. Notice how besides the visuals (the best money can buy) the only time the film was actually engaging was when there was a ghost of a plot and characters? Any good film could have gotten through the ‘meat’ of this one in 5 minutes, at a fraction of the budget, and moved on to something actually meaningful, instead of having 2 hours of voiceovers of “Are you there God, its me?” Who, a shapeless character? And what the fuck happened to the son?

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