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The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)

Directed by: Terrence Malick

The cast includes:

So what’s it about?

The impressionistic story of a Texas family in the 1950s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. (Source: IMDB)

Out of darkness there comes light. And after the darkest day in November, and the end of the Divali festival of light, somehow it seemed apt to watch a quasi-religious movie about the meaning life, the universe and everything. 

Before I go any further, let me preface my review of “The Tree of Life” by saying that Terrence Malick has only directed 7 movies in his entire career.

Films directed by Terrence Malick:

Despite his lack of productivity, the reverence he is held in his seemingly undiminished over the years amongst critics, moviemakers and moviegoers alike. Frequently tagged as a “a poet” and “a visionary” this “reclusive” director made his name with the hauntingly beautiful “Badlands” (1973), starring Martin Sheen, which has been a personal favourite of mine for many years.

The Thin Red Line” (1998) marked something of a return to the big time and was, on the whole, a terrific treatise on the human cost of war. The one section I had deep misgivings about during “The Thin Red Line” was when Ben Chaplin’s character reminisces about his long-distant lover, and we see in hazy rose-tinted flashback this paragon of virtue swing back and forth in a floaty flowery dress. This sort of saccharine sentimentality makes me reach for the sick bucket every time. So you can imagine my undiluted joy when I discovered that Malick’s latest and greatest magnum opus expands this scene into a 139 minute saga.


Set in 1950’s Waco (Texas), the film tells about Jack ’s childhood with his two brothers; one of whom dies. And that’s it. There is very little in the way of action in the movie, it is more impressionistic little vignettes; moments of joy and tension between the boys themselves and between them and their overbearing father (Brad Pitt). These scenes are bookended by the adult Jack (Sean Penn) who wanders round his office staring out the many windows full of existential angst and unresolved feelings about his father, his brother’s death and life in general.

That being said, Sean Penn has reportedly gone on record to say that the script was one of the best he had ever read. Unfortunately, it has had the Malick treatment. 30 minutes of the total running time must have been allocated to long passages of “2001”-esque shots of planets, nebulas, deserts, waterfalls, erupting volcanoes and, most bizarrely of all, dinosaurs. It is as if Malick has raided the BBC’s “Natural History” unit to help him insert the ‘wonder’ in a film that is anything but wonderful. I can well imagine how glorious these magnificient images must look on the big screen. After all, I enjoyed watching them in Ron Fricke’s documentary Baraka (1992)  and Samsara (2011) where the viewer is allowed to form their own interpretation of meaning from a collection of exquisitely shot scenes from all over the world. What I object to is Malick cynically crowbarring scenes like these into his homegrown family drama to suit his own overly pious agenda.

And that is my chief objection to this movie. I cannot imagine any sane studio chief sanctioning Malick’s final version. It must have been his own ego that insisted on such a long-winded film which obviously aspires to ask some very deep questions about spirituality as some kind of a hymn to Christian values. Sadly, it goes nowhere and is humdrum, manipulative and pretentiously dull in the extreme.

In terms of the cast, Malick’s fetish for wind-ruffled floaty dresses is embodied in Jessica Chastain’s character, the Mother. I say character but she is entirely a superficial creation; something to be objectified and admired but not a character in her own right. She watches limply as Brad Pitt’s ‘Father’ bullies and berates her own children. She does nothing; she says nothing. She catches a butterfly one moment then washes her feet with a hose the next. There is no life to her except the one that Young Jack Oedipally fixates on.

Talking of which, I feel the most sorry for Brad Pitt who seemed to be on the verge on something great in his turn as the Father. The role of patriarch here is reduced to some ballet of arm movements in Pitt’s portrayal: it’s him putting his strong controlling hand on his son’s shoulder; it’s him slapping his sons and telling them to punch his hand hard; it’s him pulling his wife’s arms down to her side so she can’t slap him; it’s him pulling up weeds in the garden; it’s him throwing his arm round his son Jack’s shoulder as they walk down the street together. Arms… and a pouted lip all the way.

Yet it works. His bitterness exudes from him like a poison he can’t contain or control. He takes out his fury at not making anything of himself out on his boys and you can see his anger and his remorse at the same time. Malick’s film takes his character nowhere – more’s the pity – and leaves him adrift in some kind of narrative limbo.

Of the rest of the cast, young Jack played by Hunter McCracken is very good – too good for this film – and bizarrely evinces a young Jim Caviezel more than the young Sean Penn he is supposed to portray. Speaking of Sean Penn, his billing is completely misleading as he is barely in this movie at all. Possibly he will be grateful for this in the long run. For the most part, he just walks round his office at the start of the film then a rocky beach later on; both times looking plaintively for answers from the cosmos as if he is saying “Why, Terrence, why???”

This is not the most alienating thing however. The most alienating aspect of this movie is that Malick makes use of whispered voiceover from the Mother’s character and from young Jack. This amounts to little fragments of whispered speech along the lines of: “He lies”; “He pretends”; “Where did you go?”; “How do I get back there?” etc. etc. Depressingly, this is throughout the movie; punctuating it time and time again as we see pointless, repetitive shots of the 3 boys playing in the house, playing outside the house, eating dinner, eating lunch, going to church, washing in the bath, drying their hair etc. etc. You actually feel like you are living these boys’ childhood and it goes… nowhere. Even more irritatingly, the whispered voiceover – which attempts some existential questioning about life, death and faith – reminds you not about the meaning of life but of the entire pointlessness of this movie. In fact, Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” posed more questions and more answers than Malick ever does here.

Perversely, Peter Bradshaw, the critic for the Guardian, gave “The Tree of Life” 5 stars out of 5 and labelled it “one of this decade’s great Christian artworks“. That stretches credulity. You can admire his audacious approach to narrative in this movie or condemn his pretension. I know which camp I am in.

Yet, in trying to understand Peter Bradshaw’s position, I can imagine the movie impressing on the big screen just by virtue of Malick’s undoubted and undiminished talent for visuals. I can even imagine that it is feasible that viewers could find some kind of spiritual meaning through watching the film. However, for me, that would depend on the viewer working exceptionally hard to integrate their own world view into that of Mr. Malick’s. Ultimately, I found the movie strove far, far too hard to suggest some Creationist meaning to life… and not just any life. By setting the movie in 1950’s Waco and by including a brother who plays guitar and dies, Malick has invited most pundits to speculate that it is his own story he is seeking to tell. That is what I object to most of all: the notion that he has egotistically presented his own life story, albeit modified for dramatic licence, as a model for a universal understanding of the universe. It simply does not translate in these terms.

I would like to say that this film is a blip but, unless I am disproved by his next picture, I believe that Malick is now very much in the twilight of his career and totally at the mercy of the law of diminishing returns. Here is a movie that is the motion picture equivalent of an old man sitting on a porch flicking through his photo album and gazing misty-eyed into the middle distance (when he’s not preaching to anyone that will listen). If that’s the case then I would rather he kept both his sermonising and his nostalgic soul-searching to the deepest recesses of his mind rather than inflict them so arrogantly on an unfortunate public. Alternatively, I am quite sure he could develop an Iphone app which could give your photos the “Malick effect”. Something with a hazy rose-tinted floaty dress perhaps?

By way of conclusion, words cannot express how excruciating this was to watch. I had to put the “Time remaining” feature on the DVD player to keep a close eye on how close I was to reaching the halfway point of the movie. I then had to switch it off and took 2 weeks to buck up the courage to return to watching the final half. Had he directed this in a much more linear narrative then this movie may well have been a fitting addition to his back catalogue and a compelling showcase for Pitt’s new found acting muscle (Chanel adverts notwithstanding).

He didn’t however and we are all the sorrier for it. 

IN SHORT: Bloated pretentious quasi-Christian balderdash dressed as a Kubrickian thesis on the meaning of life and loss.

Rating: 1 star out of 5.

The Emperor has no clothes.

What did you think of “The Tree of Life”? Did you enjoy it? Rate it below here:

  1. Check out the movie on IMDB
  2. Read the Guardian’s review of the film while at Cannes
  3. Read Peter Bradshaw’s glowing 5-star review of the film in the Guardian
  4. Read Jason Solomons’ more balanced review in the Guardian
  5. Read about the film on Wikipedia
  6. Read about the film on Rottentomatoes.com


About dustforprints

Part bibliophile, part cinephile, part dream weaver. Hmmn... in short, I like books and movies and I write words about both from time to time.


4 thoughts on “The Tree of Life (2011)

  1. Excellent write up my friend 🙂

    Posted by Tyson Carter | November 15, 2012, 1:19 am
  2. I just discovered your site and thought this was an interesting review. I liked the Tree of Life overall and think there’s plenty of worthwhile parts to it. Even so, I can understand your take. In terms of Malick’s ego, I don’t believe that’s the real issue with what he presents. He has a particular style that wows some film critics (like you mention) and turns off a lot of people. I love Days of Heaven and really like The New World and Badlands, so I’m more inclined to like his work. I love the ambitions of the Tree of Life and still find it intriguing even though I caught up with it a while back. It would have been something to see on the big screen. Even so, a lot of it did feel more like an exercise. The family scenes were so emotional, while the creation sequences were thoughtful yet cold.

    Posted by Dan Heaton | June 6, 2013, 7:51 pm

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