'The Tree of Life' Review By Dan

You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make sh*t. Unbelievable, unremarkable sh*t. Now I'm not some grungy wannabe filmmaker that's searching for existentialism through a haze of bong smoke or something.
  • Story
  • Acting
  • Directing
  • Visuals
Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

Director: Terrence Malick

It happened. I caved. I had to watch the film that won the coveted Palme d'Or and decide for myself if it deserved the accolades. My overall quote that I chose, the beginning monologue from Swordfish, said by John Travolta's character, was really the initial words that came to mind for me when I saw the trailer for Terrence Malick's latest. I mean, the movie literally asks existential questions throughout, and the kids run through smoke...Now, if you recall, I did an incredible amount of bashing towards Malick, his film style, and all but wrote this film off before it even released. I'm not here to eat my own words, but I believe you'll find me to be a little more fair after you finish reading this.

Since it has been a minute or two since I've turned one of my movie reviews into a personal affair, this film will do, being a meditation on life itself. While Tree of Life does indeed suffer from a never ending amount of pretentious meandering with its narrative, I found myself hard pressed to being able to just turn my nose up at it as if it were pure nonsense. The character of Jack O'Brien (played by Sean Penn as an adult in a very small role, and Hunter McCracken (who should have gotten higher billing than the mighty Penn, honestly) as a child) is essentially an introverted version of myself. My childhood was very reminiscent of Jack's, with the amount of time I spent outdoors daydreaming of the future, causing trouble with my brother and friends. My father was match for match exactly like Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien (in an intensely compartmentalized performance), in that I knew he loved me fiercely, but he was of the old, hard breed; not very forgiving and quick to anger. I remember vividly the day my father called my brother and myself into the computer room, and began to pull up the history folder for the internet on the old Mac, and I instantly knew where that was heading. I was 11 at the time, my brother 13 or 14, and though I'm sure my brother had seen pornography before that, being older than me, I knew some of the sites pulled up were from my curiosity. We began to argue that we didn't know what we were looking at (a bullsh*t argument, he knew it, we knew it), and instead of reacting in the 'cool dad' way or something and giving the birds and bees talk, my brother and I were both beaten. I remember laying on the ground, the wind knocked out of me and bleeding, and listening to my brother scream down the hall. There is a moment of familial violence at the dinner table in Tree that comes on so jarringly that it made me think of that memory for some reason... There were a number of other occasions similar to that moment in my childhood afterwards. To this day I've had minimal contact with my father for about the past decade.

The way that Jessica Chastain's Mrs. O'Brien is portrayed (who is also excellent, maybe even better than Pitt here), in that angelic, pure sense, was 100% the way I viewed my mother. The perfect woman, who could do no wrong by me, the opposite of my father. Like the boys in the film having their unfettered moments with mom when dad was away on a business trip, I had similar moments with my mother after my parents divorced. And thankfully, the image of her has never been tarnished for me, and I'm grateful for that, because I know plenty of friends and acquaintances who don't even have a relationship or even know their parents as adults. The fact that Malick captures these childhood emotions so effectively on screen brought me to a level of profundity that has taken some time to digest. I couldn't sit down immediately and just begin typing words, as it wasn't a normal viewing experience for me upon reflection. So while my quote above is a classic display of my old snarky self you're all familiar with, it felt like a distant thought afterwards. So given that my life has mirrored the film in a number of ways, I found myself able to get past the pretentious bits (see: entire film) probably with more ease than the average individual would that isn't into Terrence Malick's style of film making (I'm still not, this particular film just happened to be extremely relate-able for me).

Tree of Life continues to showcase Malick's distinct eye for thought provoking imagery, between seeing the universe born and expand in dazzling colors and shapes, to up close shots of new born babies, and capturing how tiny and fragile we are when we first come into this world, and the sense of wonder we have about this initially alien existence. A single frame might speak a thousand different things to a thousand people watching Tree, so in that sense Malick has indeed captured art in motion. Even I'll admit, in this modern movie world we live in, where most of us are impatient to get to the next scene, the pay off, I walked away impressed when I thought about this film from that angle. You don't find that introspective experience often anymore, as most film makers don't have the patience to deliver a product like that, or are afraid other people won't (get it/have patience) when they see it.

I also found myself attracted to the attempted marriage of science and faith theme that is prevalent. I'm a firm believer that science can prove God and the realm beyond this life, and it was fascinating for me to watch the creation of the cosmos and the universe age in juxtaposition with Chastain's strong faith that she possesses and instills in the boys (as witnessed by heard whispered prayers and unanswerable questions in voice over). I'm sure this aspect of Tree of Life will be absorbed vastly differently with different people, but again, like the entirety of the film, I believe that is sort of the point. Interpretation and ambiguity is monstrously rampant here.

Curiously, the sonorous score by celebrated French film composer Alexandre Desplat was the weakest part of the film for me. It's slow and steady, building as the film progresses, spiking where necessary (or cutting off very briefly), but the almost nonstop droning of it from minute one to end credits ended up annoying me and diminishing some scenes that I imagine should have come off more poignantly. I had the same reaction/problem with The New World, so I'll chalk that up to just another reason why I'm not as into Malick movies as some.

Having seen Melancholia and Tree of Life within a short span of time of each other, it would probably be quite the cerebral and emotional gauntlet to run through to see both films back to back. Both are very much layered experiences with some similar themes, but taking STARKLY different approaches to the same ideas. Where one seemingly punishes you for the simple fact you exist, the other encourages you to celebrate this. Something tells me Terrence and Lars would not find very much middle ground considering these pair of films and how obviously personal they are to the both of them.

In summation, while likely not going to be the film of the year for me due the weaknesses explained, I did walk away from The Tree of Life much more satisfied than I thought possible. Given my Pisces nature, if I hadn't watched it with so much pent up preconceived notions of wanting to hate it, I might have even loved it since it pandered to exactly my type of person. It's possible it could grow on me over time, and I find myself in a different place with it. Perhaps if/when I make my peace with my own father....

Final Grade: B-

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Comments (22)

  1. Dan

    @moviegeek I know, and agree. Just have been a variety of things going on that have prevented me from getting back into my MW groove. I have some vacation time coming up mid next month, prob try to pump out a few reviews then. I don't like to write if I feel hurried or uninspired.

    3 years agoby @dan1Flag

  2. moviegeek

    @dan1 It's been much too long since you've written a review.

    3 years agoby @moviegeekFlag

  3. Zak Lee Ferguson

    i utterly adored this film, i felt it was just sublime, well orchestrated, wide, varied, a unique gem- honest review sir!

    3 years agoby @Zak-Lee-FergusonFlag

  4. Georgia DiPirro

    I will, I love the personal touch ... Encore {more applause} Encore! @dan1

    3 years agoby @Georgia-DiPirroFlag

  5. Dan

    @Georgia-DiPirro Thank you thank you *bows graciously*. Check out my Blue Valentine and Passion of the Christ reviews for more personal flair.

    3 years agoby @dan1Flag

  6. Georgia DiPirro

    Wow... @dan1 You sir, walk your talk ~ you tell it like it is with your ruthless honesty- Love It! Brilliant review!

    3 years agoby @Georgia-DiPirroFlag

  7. Dan

    @moviegeek What can I say, I'm an open book kinda guy. It doesn't bother me to spill my guts out to the world.

    3 years agoby @dan1Flag

  8. moviegeek

    @dan1 I hate writing thoughtful reviews. They take too much time and I'm never fully satisfied with them (even though everyone who reads them seems to love them lol). It usually takes a couple of days to warm up to my own reviews of this sort.

    But it should be noted that none of my reviews are ever a fraction of how personal some of your reviews are :P

    3 years agoby @moviegeekFlag

  9. Dan

    @moviegeek That's something I've been thinking about, which style of writing I prefer to write in. Suppose it's all influenced by what kind of movie I'm seeing. Something hollow and not profound (like Transformers), you're not likely to see this side of me. These 'raw' reviews tend to take a LOT more time to write out, too, even if they're shorter than some of my others.

    3 years agoby @dan1Flag

  10. moviegeek

    I agree with your comment below though. This doesn't seem like you who wrote this. This review is quite raw and quite elegant. Your other reviews are conversational and direct. Love both styles, but this really worked for me. Proof that you haven't lost your touch ;)

    3 years agoby @moviegeekFlag

  11. moviegeek

    @dan1 Yes I have read it :P

    I'm expecting this to be amazing so you've lowered those expectations lol. You get major kudos for using one of my favorite words though :) (sonorous)

    3 years agoby @moviegeekFlag

  12. Dan

    @corey@thedude-abides@John-Car@slysnide@shuabert@ejk1 Appreciate all the thoughtful feedback, people. Those were fantastic responses to read.

    @thedude-abides Clearly this individual is a major Malick fan, and it's cool that I elicited that type of response from them. It wouldn't have mattered to me had it been negative though, just getting them to respond to my writing is what I'm looking for.

    3 years agoby @dan1Flag

  13. thedude-abides

    @dan1 Another web-browsing user who happens across your review online and makes an account to leave a single comment? At least this one is positive, if not overly philosophical, lol.

    3 years agoby @thedude-abidesFlag

  14. John Car

    Who is "God" in a cinema, Dan?
    The director, right?
    Where were you when Malick laid the foundations of the Earth, when he made the morning stars sang together... and all his fans shouted for joy?

    Simple answer, no?
    (seated on the cinema's chair)

    Remember that snake swimming in the river? Do you know Goethe's Faust? Malick does:

    Grey, my friend, is every theory
    And green is Life's golden tree.

    I swear it's like a dream to me: may I
    Trouble you, at some further time,
    To expound your wisdom, so sublime?

    As much as I can, I'll gladly explain.

    I can't tear myself away,
    I must just pass you my album, sir,
    Grant me the favor of your signature!

    Very well.
    (he writes and gives the book back)

    Student (reading Mephistopheles' Latin inscription)
    Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum. ("You shall be like like gods, knowing good and evil".)
    (the student makes his bows and retires)

    Just follow the old proverb, and my cousin the snake, too:
    And then your likeness to God will surely frighten you!
    (Faust, Goethe)

    That mother could be yours? So you identify with Jack, right? Jack is the diminutive of Jacob. Do you know the bibibal character? He fought with God.
    Can you imagine what is RL? Someone? Malick's brother? The River of Life.
    And Steve? Steve is the diminutive of Stephen. Malick was a pupil at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin. A portrait of the artist as a young man.

    Father says more or less:
    "You act as you're in trouble. You act as you don't wanna fight. And the moment they blinck, crack them!"
    Nothing gives more pleasure to a thief than robbing you while saying: "I beg of you, M'sieur, watch yourself. Be on guard. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere, everywhere." What breathtaking pleasure hearing your grateful answer: "Ha, ha, thank you, thank you very much". I am quoting from Casablanca. This is a delicious situation to watch in Curtiz's film. But when it happens to you it is funny no more. Malick loves Bresson's Pickpocket, so you should be aware.

    The fact is that he is in total delirium, and "delirium... plays with the universe and its laws as if they were toys" (Bataille). It plays with you too.

    There are two ways through this film. And you you crossed it through grace. That's natural: "... no one who chooses the way of grace ever comes to a bad end". But that can not endure forever. Maybe you have to close "the door quietly 50 times", as O'Brien tells Jack to do (not by chance a "screen door"), but one day you will understand why really Malick made you identify with Jack. The truth is that the entire film is the Garden of Eden and the Grace vs. Nature speech is made to the spectators and only to them.

    This film is a very special kind of joke.
    Malick doesn't seem to be a joker? Did you noticed how the screen is on fire at least one time during his films, like he couldn't avoid it?
    "The arsonist is the most dissembling of criminals." (Bachelard)

    3 years agoby @John-CarFlag

  15. Josh

    @dan1 "A single frame might speak a thousand different things to a thousand people watching Tree, so in that sense Malick has indeed captured art in motion"

    That is indeed where Malick succeeds to the degree that ANYONE could enjoy this film. Someone (I can't remember who) said that you could take any still frame of this film and it would look fantastic framed in your living room. I agree.

    The film overall struck me with several emotions. Like you and seemingly most other viewers, I found it hard to take in and even harder to review. I definitely want to see it again, and maybe that is proof that Malick succeeded.

    3 years agoby @shuabertFlag

  16. slysnide

    @dan1: You're right about that, it does sound like a very different person wrote it. Excellent by the way. It strikes me as a depressing flick which would only make me dwell on similar unpleasant experiences. I hate how these types of flicks are always pretentiously held in such a higher regard over everything else. Your overall quote sells it. If people wanted to succeed in that business, they don't need to act like a gross understudy of acting makes them the all knowing person in the room, as if they've unlocked some secret to the "human condition." Jesus I hate that phrase, but that's the type of sh*t people spew in these types of films. I mean, whatever happened to five guys and a camera? Or like, 30 underpaid free-spirited friends on a 3-4wk experiment in which they get little sleep, have a blast, and don't waste 3-4 months of the year dwelling on some existentialist point about life. That's pretty much what every filmmaker for IFC does for a living. They have the budget to accomplish independent greatness and revolutionize the business by popular demand to throw out all the sh*t that's produced nowadays by greed and the fears of not getting a guaranteed 66% profit margin. And as long as flicks like these are made, the more will strive to replicate it. How many of these do we need? How many pretentious directors with the damn scarf and french hat do we need stroking their hair while conversing about their literary greatness via the script before it goes away? So in short--I know, I always end these rants with "in short" and wonder why I didn't start out that way to begin with--they're alright films, but they're way past their prime. To easy to make, to overpriced, and too melodramatic behind the veil of "drama" and critics.

    3 years agoby @slysnideFlag

  17. thedude-abides

    @dan1 Everything you said are exactly the reasons why I've changed my opinion of Malick's films. The more experience I have with life, the more I'm able to connect with what he's talking about. Much like your own experiences with your father (similar experiences here, although more verbally abusive than physically), it's a truism for many young men growing up that Malick is able to strum like a finely tuned harpsichord.

    There's a scene in "The New World" when John Smith (Collin Farrell) returns to visit a now-married Pocahontas after leaving her to search for the Indies. When she asks him if he ever found them, he simply replies, "I think I may have sailed past them." Obviously implying that he never should have left her. That was one of those human truisms incorporated by Malick that resonated with me. Excellent, unbiased review, friend. One of my favorites of yours.

    3 years agoby @thedude-abidesFlag

  18. ejk1

    @dan1 Hey man, the hardest things to do are usually the most rewarding, and in the case of writing, the most cathartic. Excellent job.

    3 years agoby @ejk1Flag

  19. Corey W.

    Very strong review @dan1. The second and third paragraph are powerful and really grasped my attention. Excellent review, man. This is a tough movie to review (I know that because I've tried to and have given up in the process) and you've done it perfectly. One of the best reviews I've read in a while. Favorites.

    3 years agoby @coreyFlag

  20. Dan

    @kguy Thanks. Not sure if I'm happy with it, this was hard to write about.

    3 years agoby @dan1Flag

  21. K.Guy

    I wasn't too interested in this film, but the acting seemed great. Excellent review sir.

    3 years agoby @kguyFlag

  22. Dan

    I would really appreciate it if @thedude-abides and @shuabert read this review. I wrote it with you guys in mind to read it.

    I'm aware that it sounds like a massively different person wrote it :P

    3 years agoby @dan1Flag