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It was with nothing but a sense of duty that I went to see Terrence Mallick's new film. As a writer and filmmaker, I felt I owed it to myself to see 2011's Palme D'Or winner directed by one of the most highly praised filmmakers of all time. Yet I had this one summed up in my head after seeing the trailer for the first time: a self-indulgent snooze fest with ambitions too high for any film to live up to.
So it's much to my surprise that I write this review; the Tree of Life was actually... not bad.
Chief among the complaints about this film is its supposed lack of focus. I actually didn't find this to be much of an issue at all. True, it kicks off with a disjointed feel but it settles quickly. Personally, I feel the film can be broken down into four sections, including a prologue and epilogue of sorts. Other than that, each section is more or less linear with a logic that's fairly easy to understand. I think this is especially true if you see the first and last sections as prologue and epilogue.
The second section was my favorite. Essentially the birth of the universe and its subsequent evolution, complete with volcanos and dinosaurs. Picture a cross between Fantasia and the final sequence of 2001 and you'll have a good idea of what it's like. The visuals are just so powerful, frankly, I could've stood for another hour and a half of them. Consequently, this section was only about half and hour.
The third section is what makes up the bulk of the film, which is that of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raising three boys with primary focus on their son, Jack (the adult version of whom is played by Sean Penn). This sequence extends from the birth of Jack to what I assume is his adolescence. The scenes within are seemingly unrelated but over the course of the sequence, you do see Jack's growth as a person in all respects throughout his childhood so as it goes on, it starts to make more and more sense.
The final sequence is probably the strangest of all which features all the characters in the film (along with many extras) on a beach basically hugging each other and shaking hands. I'm assuming this was supposed to represent the universe as a whole, independent of time or... something.
As one might expect, the scope of the film is utterly cosmic so it's only appropriate that the filmmaking be as well. The cinematography is, if not the best in history, as good as any in history. I think part of that lies in the choice of locations which are naturally beautiful and occasionally the aid of CGI but the shots are still meticulously crafted to the point of perfection. Some of them look more like paintings than anything. Visually speaking, the Tree of Life is truly a work of art.
As for the rest... well, the film's essentially plotless and devoid of any real meaning or even enough subtext for one to extract meaning. In that sense, the film is sort of hollow and the ambition of the film seems to be such as where hollowness would entail failure. But you know what? I don't think its ambition was as high as the scope would suggest. I honestly felt like the point of the film was simply to inspire a sense of wonder and possibly serve as a reminder of life and the world. In that regard, I think the film was a success.
That's not to say there aren't things wrong with the film. Even at two hours when it could've been three, the length is trying at times. I checked my cell after the evolution sequence and was a little wary about finishing the film once I realized it was only forty five minutes after showtime. I think the flow of the cinematography and the music helped fend off stronger feelings of impatience and anxiety but contrary-wise, they could just as well have put someone to sleep. The long sections with no dialogue (or Mallick's cheesy V.O.) didn't exactly help.
The final twenty minutes or so were especially too long. There were so many opportune moments for the film to end, each as strong as the other, and yet it went on. And the moment it did end was IMO a poor choice.
There was also a fair share of self-indulgence in the filmmaking. Worst of all were probably the early sequences with Sean Penn in which the camera was clearly favoring the architecture to the actor, which served no discernible purpose other than to show off. This is exacerbated by the fact that Sean Penn's character is essentially worthless; he has barely fifteen minutes of screen time and close to no dialogue (I think he only had one line that wasn't V.O.).
The air of melodramatic spiritually and mysticism throughout also had its moments of annoyance.
Overall though, I don't regret watching.
I wouldn't readily recommend The Tree of Life. I don't think it takes a certain kind of person to watch it; there's no telling how any one person might react. It's a gamble and I think it'll be a pain in the ass for a lot of people.
That said, I'd recommend anyone interested in seeing it see The Thin Red Line first. Chances are if anything in that film takes your fancy, this one might be for you as well. If anything turns you off about it, I might just stay away from this one all together.
Cool review, James. You pretty much summed up my expectations for this. I'm not sure why the director is classed as such a genius...brilliant cinematography and a slow pace doesn't automatically mean a film is a work of art. That's just my opinion, but alot of people fawn over that kind of thing.(then tell people in a patronizing manner if they don't like his work 'they don't get it, it's too deep for you -- you MTV generation freak'. Etc Etc.) I never buy that. I like slow paced movies. If their's a point to the slow pace. It's not always the case.
I think it's an ironing film for me. I did so much ironing when I watched 'The New World'. A months worth, I think. Some of the images stayed with me, but the 'plot' certainly didnt.
I wouldn't say I'm a Mallick fan. Not even a casual one. But I made a point to use the word "best" to describe his cinematography as opposed to something like "brilliant." Every shot looks as meticulously labored over as the next one to the point where it looks like borderline stills photography. I looked up the cinematographer's filmography and none of his other work compares to what he did with Mallick, not even Children of Men. In that regard, I do think credit is due.
Other than that, I wouldn't call him a genius nor would I call his films deep. Because of his overuse of V.O., viewers have nothing to dig for. The films wear their messages on their sleeves. I guess you really have to be interested in what the guy has to say to get that invested in his work.
I watched this over the weekend with my hubby. Half-way into it, he got up to do other things and I labored on (yes, I said labored...). But as it turns out, the father-son sequence (which is what it seemed to be, tucked into what I would call the cinematographic ego trip that made up the rest of the film) was the best part. Watching the story of the boy's life with such a hard father was touching and, in my opinion, exactly where the focus should have been. When the end (finally) came, I was still left a bit lost about the brother's death and fairly disappointed that the story suffered as much as it did for the sake of some (admittedly) amazing footage.
That said, the acting, especially on the part of the boys, was superb. I only wish the film had kept to a more traditional format to display the actors' skills a bit more.
Overall, I don't regret watching it, but it's not something I'll recommend or watch again (even for free).
Like James, I too watched this as a sense of duty but more because I'm a big fan of Malickís previous films rather than it winning the Palme D'or.
Firstly, this is undoubtedly Malick's most difficult film, a taxing watch by anyone standards. This is not where I would recommend anyone to start who are looking to get into his films. He has never been one to put narrative first and this is particularly fragmented plot-wise. If you are looking to be introduced into his world I would start chronologically with Badlands and finish with The New World before tackling thisÖthat is of course if youíve liked what youíve seen in those four features. Personally I think The Thin Red Line is his best film and the best war film since Apocalypse Now, plenty of traditional battle scenes to satiate the war fanís appetite while also having those familiar Malick moments of reflection via multiple, poetic voiceovers and staggeringly powerful imagery.
Anyway, back to the film in question. What did I think? After just seeing it once in an outdoor deckchair cinema in Darwin, Northern Territory, a quixotic venue that naturally fed into the mood and aesthetic qualities of the film, I really responded to it. I was held rapt for the 2 hour duration and felt I was watching something unique and inspiring from a truly visionary artist, an artist who unashamedly expresses his views on the world and our place within it without any concession for the viewer. Itís the conviction of his beliefs that always impresses me, his emotional integrity, honesty and sincerity is never compromised which is why I think for the most part they avoid pretention. For others, this lack of levity, his relentlessly po-faced approach to the grandest of themes such as nature, God, faith, divinity, spirituality, cycle of life, the meaning of our existence is what makes him a prime target for such criticisms. Given his credentials though, I think if anyone is qualified to take on such subjects, its Malick. He never seems out of his depth or working beyond himself, he is in control, assured and forthright.
James wasnít lying when he says this is one of the most visually delicious films ever committed to celluloid. I mean, any shot you could hang on the wall in your front room. Every element of the filmís framing, lighting, shading, every colour, every contrast looks like itís been meticulously selected to achieve the desired effect. Malick has always been fascinated with nature, the minutiae of life, the little things. In The Thin Red Line we find him focusing on a snail making its slow progress right in the midst of a hectic battle sequence and here he has similar non character centric shots. Key moments in Jackís (Sean Penn) memories of growing up are often told through a distracted, preoccupied lens which only partially documents events, much like half remembered memories from oneís own childhood. Something as familiar and taken for granted as a river flowing through a forest hold great significance to him which he uses to symbolise the beauty of the world around us. This is what I mean when I talk about is clarity of vision, his life affirming awe of what we see as ordinary and every day.
Doug Trumbull who supervised the marvellous and truly ground breaking effects for two classic films 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner takes the reins here and you can see why this guy is hailed as a legend. The birth of the universe sequence contains images reminiscent of 2001 utilizing those very same retro effects of oil colours and physical allusions rather than todayís CGI techniques. In fact the one misstep I think that the film makes visually is the CGI dinosaur sequence, where one Dino pardons another even though itís got it at its mercy. I like the sentiment of the scene, the idea of grace and ďhumanityĒ being present in all creatures at different stages of evolution (at least this is what I took from it) but the force of the scene is practically neutered by the ropey, video game, Star Wars prequels like CGI. It also marks a defining moment of the filmís progress whereby if you are on board with the journey and the direction the film is going youíll let this one slide, if not, you will probably laugh aloud at the purely tangential, seeming inconsequential meanderings it has taken. The screening I attended was probably typical where at least half of the audience were given to stuttered laughs and scorns while others, including myself, kept silent.
Long time Malick production designer Jack Fisk does his usual excellent job in creating these majestic worlds for the director to roam around in. The stark contrast of the growing up sequences, the 1950s clothes, hairstyles, cars, buildings compared to the disenchanting, ultra modern coldness of the world Jack inhabits now is breathtaking to behold. This disconnected world of blue and grey and alienation reflect the hollow shell of a man Jack has been left to wrestle with after a tough, unforgiving childhood.
Musically, this has all the hallmarks of a Malick film. The operatic score intertwined with elegant (some may say cheesy) voiceover to create an ever flowing cadence that runs throughout the film for long periods augment the filmís dreamlike quality. Itís an aesthetic that Malick has used in all his films and works excellently here due to the nature of the broad, millennia spanning thesis at work. There is a momentum and rhythm to the score and voiceover which provide an exquisite compliment to the scenes. He has always being very aware of the relationship between audio and visual, for Malick, they go hand in hand, one is as important as the other and treated this way with equal emphasis. I find it keeps us at armís reach, works in tandem yet is its own entity, forming a barrier between us and these memories, glimpses of a troubled family while never letting us be totally immersed. We are spectators to the vital moments of something as singular as the development of a human being alongside something as big and all encompassing as the universe itself.
Performance wise Brad Pitt is exceptional as the hardened father who doesnít seem to fully realise the emotional damage he is inflicting on his eldest. He is a driven, pragmatic man but shackled by the practicalities and realities of life. The harsh truths that come with missed opportunities, disappointments, one not achieving the goals they set out to do, the goals they thought were in their grasp but passed them by is all imparted by his stoic depiction. The fallout from this frustration and the legacy it disposes on Jack symbolise the human nature side of Malickís exploration. This is who Mr. OíBrien represents, this is his nature, his approach to getting through life. He is only passing on the knowledge the best way he knows how for, what he believes, the benefit of his offspring. One gets the impression that he had a hard upbringing too, dragged up rather than brought up, thus playing into this idea of the circle of life, like father like son.
Jessica Chastain is equally effective as the mother representing grace, someone in tune to nature, someone who looks beyond the difficulties and pitfalls of everyday life, someone who sees the beauty beneath, in other words, the total opposite to her husband. She also tries to imbue her children with this childlike wonder and appreciation of all things divine but finds a indomitable foe in the form of her husband. She is a reoccurring character in Malickís work comparable to Badlandís Holly, Days of Heavenís Linda, The Thin Red Lineís Pvt. Witt and The New Worldís Pocahontas someone I feel represents the director. He channels himself through these people.
Unfortunately, Sean Penn has very little to do except stumble around looking forlorn and lost, even a screen presence like him is no match for the magnitude of his environment. Apparently Penn himself is very disappointed with the theatrical cut saying that the heart and soul which drove the script he read has been lost in the edit. This is a big change to the circumstance surrounding The Thin Red Line where Penn waivered a pay check just to be involved in the film. Itís a pity he is so underused but everything we need to know about his character is given to us in the flashbacks, these contemporary scenes are merely a culmination of this upbringing.
As a narrative, it is very slight with a barely discernible plot but like I say, Malick has never been too big on story in a conventional manner. He is a MIT philosophy lecturer by profession so itís no surprise that he prefers to explore thematically through concept, metaphor and symbolism rather than a three act protag/antag scenario. Theses element can be detected but they take a backseat in favour of the former methods of expression. I think the bones of the story can be summed up as the growth of a man stemming from a cataclysmic event in his childhood of a siblings death, the subsequent loss of innocence, its immediate and lasting effect of this on the family, the overbearing presence of the father dominating his mother and sons thus dominating the family as a whole and effecting the generation to come. This microcosm of the family is indicative of the universe, the fabric of creation mirrored in the evolution of the all American, suburban family, how everything informs and influences each another in order to perpetuate the cradle of life. Yes, its vague and may seem like Iím clutching at straws here trying to derive meaning out of the most broadest of strokes. but this is what I took to be the overarching message of the film, how something so vast and impenetrable as the origins of the universe can be tackled and quantified on a human level, in laymenís terms if you will.
So while I appreciate the scope, ambition and beauty of the film, itís not without its faults. The fractured storytelling can be frustrating, the voiceover can be rather glib and on the nose, your patience will be tested by the slow, measured meditative pacing, I guess it all depends what you are looking for in a film, what mood youíre in, what you are expecting going into it. I knew what to expect having seen his earlier work and to a degree it didnít disappoint or catch me completely unaware, I guess this is both a compliment and a criticism.
The question of pretentiousness in Malickís filmmaking has been a long debated aspect. Again, it falls on the viewer, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what not. Peopleís threshold for this sort of naval gazing, examination of the foundations of our world differs and while some of us could sit through a 2 hour essay wrestling said topics, others wonít stick the intellectual/spiritualized babbling, the unabashed appraisals of something as simple as a single blade of grass and the 30 minutes of colours and explosions complete with dinosaurs, hence this film as well as his previous works constantly polarise critics and the public alike.
For me, this was a very special experience and while being a very Malick film, I find it impossible to draw parallels with anything I ever seen. Love him or hate him, Malick has a firm grasp on what he believes in, what he believe to be the answers or questions which lock or unlock the mysteries of the human condition and the universe. Some might find them a bit too reliant on faith, spirituality, almost hippyish and naively positive but theyíre his nonetheless, take them or leave them.
According to IMDb, he has four projects in development over the next two years, I for one, Iím very curious to see what he takes on after this. I mean, what is left when youíve attempted something this size. Time will tell.
Regardless of my mixed emotions towards the film, the lack of any concrete understanding bar my own half as?ed interpretation I will be most definitely watching this again. Its films like this in which multiple viewings work best, youíre not meant to absorb everything on first watch, you canít. To sit aghast for 120+ minutes with a combination of confusion, wonder and a sometimes anger at what I sawÖand not want to experience it again to see if I can gain further insight and understanding seems like a missed opportunity to me. I have always being rewarded 10 fold with each one of his films whenever I return to them, I hold out the same hope for The Tree of Life.
watched this yesterday. since many were saying it was the best film of 2011, i had high hopes. unfortunately, i walked away a little disappointed.
overall, this is a flawed masterpiece. a piece of work that aspires to be a film like 2001, but falls a bit short. the visuals are awesome. nothing short of spectacular. and in a way, i could see the relationship between the storyline and the cosmos. this film revolved around one concept, nature vs grace. and i really loved what it had to say. despite its length, i found the film to be both immersive and captivating. anyone that has ever lost someone close can relate to the questioning of god and human purpose. the film focuses on an intimate dilemma and then switches to the big picture. and then it captivates the journey through adolescence like no other film has. it's a beautiful movie.
but there's a problem. the story. when EVERYONE has a difficult time understanding the film, it's not the audience's fault. it's the director's. mallick failed to convey his message. how? because he didn't tell a g odamn coherent story. and it's incredibly frustrating. you want this film to reach new heights of filmmaking, but when the audience doesn't know which brother died, then there's a problem. there are so many unanswered questions that it completely muddles the film and its visuals. and these aren't questions that the audience can answer themselves. mallick fails to deliver simple answers that helps the audience understand what they're seeing. and when we don't know which brother died, it nullifies the images which they've seen prior to the film's story.
pitt and chasten are amazing. penn's performance is too brief to really even judge.
overall, if anyone tells you that this is the #1 film of 2011, they're a pretentious d ickwad who can't think for themselves because they want to be perceived as some sort of film guru. you can't ignore the problems within Tree of Life.
overall, if anyone tells you that this is the #1 film of 2011, they're a pretentious d ickwad who can't think for themselves because they want to be perceived as some sort of film guru. you can't ignore the problems within Tree of Life.
Harsh! I don't want to be the one to say this but this was my favourite movie of 2011. I enjoyed it a lot. It had it's faults but I think in the end I really felt a connection with the movie. I'm not gonna go too far with this but I just wanted to say the original cut was 6 hours long I think? Or maybe 5? Mallick is apparently going to release a bluray with the whole cut and is currently busy at work editing the footage.
hey Mo, you're absolutely right in thinking so. i'm not going to criticize you, considering the fact that you recognized that tree of life had its flaws. it's the people who say it's up there with 2001 that i have a problem with...
I think the Tree of Life was the best film (I saw) of 2011. I also think The Three Musketeers was one of the best films of 2011. A pretentious person would not say that The Three Musketeers was one of the best films of 2011. Therefore the statement, "if anyone tells you this is the #1 film of 2011, they're a pretentious d ickwad," is disproven.
I hadn't realized that a lot of people didn't know which brother had died. I had no doubt throughout the film about that, but two of my roommates came home frustrated because they hadn't known which one died. Maybe I just made an unreasonable assumption while viewing. It's the younger brother that died, right?
Oh I just sorta disregarded the youngest. Haha the middle one, I assumed. The youngest didn't have much to do with the story, really.
I guess my main thought would be this, though: is it really all that important to the film which younger brother died? The point is that he's dealing with the grief of a lost brother; the circumstances or nature of that death didn't seem, for me, to have a lot of relevance to the film. I know that way of thinking about film can be a bit unpopular but that's the way I saw it.
After reading the rest of these posts, it occurs to me that maybe my biggest beef with the film is the fact that, as told, there are essentially two different stories going on: one dealing with the son's death vs one about the father-son dynamic. I can see how one could impact the other, but I don't think enough focus was given to one or the other for the story to be satisfying.
(Can you tell I'm not a fan of movies with competing storylines?) :p