Musings on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Well, I feel like I’m the last person who saw this film. I had been so intrigued by this from the first time I heard about it. When it won Palme d’Or at Cannes, I said I couldn’t wait to see it, alas I finally got around to seeing it.

I’m not a Terrence Malick fangirl but I do respect his work and enjoyed three of his films in the past. However, all of his films seem to fit into the one-time-viewing-is-enough category — with the exception of the last half hour of The New World as I adore Christian Bale as John Rolfe — and this one is included.

The concept of a tree of life, a many-branched tree illustrating the idea that all life on earth is related, has been used in science, religion, philosophy, mythology, and other areas. (per Wikipedia) Now, Malick started the film with a verse from Job 38: 4 & 7 of God’s response to Job’s complaint:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

The verse seems to suggest that it’s leaning towards the Judeo-Christian worldview, but I feel that this is not so much a Christian film as a spiritual one… the gospel a la Terrence Malick if you will. It’s so deliberately vague that whatever message you want to take away from this really depends on your own worldview.

I’ve been warned of the lack of coherent narrative in this movie, but even with that in mind, nothing could prepare me into what I’m about to experience. I guess all of Malick’s movies are something of an enigma, but this is perhaps his most obscure and cryptic work to date. There is barely any dialogue in this film. I even joked to my husband that the whole script probably consist of a single page, front and back, and that’s about it.

The point of view we get is mostly from the eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken), though there is female voice over narration that seems to suggest a mother mourning the loss of a son… at times questioning God… “Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?” and other times she’s letting go… “I give him to you. I give you my son.”

Triggered by a tree being planted outside his skyscraper office building, the adult Jack (Sean Penn) who’s now a successful architect begins to reminisce on his childhood memories growing up in 1950s Texas. He and his two brothers were raised by a stern father (Brad Pitt) and loving mother (Jessica Chastain). That is pretty much all Malick let on in the way of plot… we’re on the outside looking in as we observe scenes of family life — kids playing, mothers comforting her child, kids being disciplined by his father, etc. Those scenes are interspersed with breathtaking imagery that seem to symbolize life’s origins and origins of the universe.

I find it impossible to properly review this film, nor can I find an appropriate rating for this. In fact, even after this film sits with me for 48 hours, I’m still trying to process just what it was that I saw. So what I’m going to tell you is how this film makes me feel. At first I was really intrigued by Malick’s direction and oohed-aahed at the overwhelmingly beautiful nature and cosmic imagery, but about three-quarters of the way in, I actually almost dozed off, spurred by the lack of action on screen and the sweet-sounding classical score by Alexandre Desplat.

In the end, the whole thing left me rather um… indifferent. Even now I don’t have any strong feeling one way or the other, which is odd considering how polarizing this film is. I think the only character I feel some sympathy with is Jack when he was a kid, as he seems to suffer the most from the way his dad treated him, but the rest of the characters fail to engage. Not that the actors’ performances weren’t good mind you, it’s just that these I couldn’t really connect with them. I think Pitt and Chastain are effective in their roles, though Penn is utterly wasted here as he wasn’t given anything to do other than looking lost and forlorn.

I’m also surprised that I didn’t shed a single tear even though I’m a crier. I mean, I bawled my eyes out watching Wall-E! With all that said though, I’m still glad I saw this film. In fact, I recommend people to actually take a chance with this film even if you have trepidation about this based on what you may have read. It’s definitely worth a watch even just to marvel at the cinematography and Malick’s keen eye of capturing nature in its most delightful way.

My husband liken this to seeing a piece of fine art in a museum, sometimes you might not understand what you are looking at in front of you, but it may have the power to touch you in a profound way… but then again, maybe not.

Well, that’s the best way I can ‘review’ this film. So what’s your thoughts about this film? I’d love to hear ’em.

59 thoughts on “Musings on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

  1. The first time I saw it I thought I ‘got it’, but then I watched it again and realised that I didn’t get it at all. I thought that it was a really great coming-of-age story, as I thought all of the questions that Jack was asking as a child were things I have asked in the past. But I didn’t really like the end, or Penn’s presence, that much. They just didn’t seem to fit.

    Anyway, I was disappointed that I didn’t cry. But that’s probably because my eyes were too busy basking in the glory of the pretty pictures. And Jessica Chastain’s talent!

    1. I think I gave up hope on trying to ‘get’ it after about 15 minutes, ahah. So I tried to just marvel at the imagery, but really it’s not enough for me to enjoy a film, y’know.

      In regards to Penn, I feel like they could just hire some obscure actors in that role, I mean if all he had to do is sulk and look melancholy, ahah. I think someone who has a gorgeous profile or something might make it um, enjoyable to just look at him, he..he..

      Jessica is really good isn’t she? Though I like her more in The Debt.

  2. I somehow figured you were going to like this a lot more. My dad will probably get this on blue-ray at some point, so i will watch it then. As you know while i don’t think Malick is a bad filmmaker but i have yet to fall in love with his work like a lot of movie bloggers have.

    1. I know you’re not a Malick fan… in that case I really don’t know if you’ll like this one. I like his previous work but this one just didn’t connect with me for some reason, though I respect him for making such a personal film and tackling an unpopular subject matter (creationism).

  3. As a lifelong Malick enthusiast I have to say I couldn’t get through it. It certainly looked and sounded as beautiful as anything I’d ever seen but there just wasn’t enough of a plot to reel me in. I loved the whole origins of the universe and the inception of life on Earth segment. Malick says he plans to release that seperately on IMAX called a Voyage of Time. It’ll be a documentary expanding on the ‘history of the universe’ scenes in The Tree Of Life.If you couldn’t tell it’s the same special effects legend who did 2001: A Space Odyssey, Douglas Trumbull.

    The whole whispering thing is starting to bother me., I know it’s meant to be inner dialogue but I can’t help but think he’s now overusing it. While I loved it in Thin Red Line and The New World it irked me here and is strating to come off as precious and a little pretentious.

    Luckily he’s in the process of making THREE films right now, two with Christain Bale:

    an Untitled Terrence Malick Project – Lawless –
    Knight of Cups –

    I guess he’s back with a vengance.

  4. I intend to watch it again, see if I’ll get a better meaning, haven’t got the time. Well, despite of its lack of narration, it has a bigger meaning than the usual movies I’ve seen. The movie have a personal meaning to every individual, I guess. Glad you liked it too, Ruth.

    1. You’re so right that every film is a personal one, but I think it’s a bit overindulgent on Malick’s part that I feel the message is a bit lost on me. But still I enjoy parts of it.

  5. I felt very similar to you. I left it un rated too.

    Brilliant, stunning, boring and breathtaking….All at the same time.

    I am more of a crier than you Ruth…I guarantee it!! But I also missed out any emotion in this one

    1. Not boring exactly, more perplexing. I think the music made me so relaxed that’s why I dozed off ha..ha..

      Glad to hear you’re a crier like me, matey, very manly of you to admit that!!

  6. I too, have yet to see this (truthfully, I watched the first ten minutes of it a day or so ago, but haven’t yet had time to finish it) and I have very, very low expecations. I hated The Thin Red Line, and didn’t really enjoy The New World either, and from what I’ve heard, i think I’m about to hate this too. I hope I’m wrong, I truly do, but I’m skeptical.

    Great write up, Ruth, regardless of my predisposition towards Malick’s work.

    1. You hated The Thin Red Line?? Oh no… I really like it as it’s kind of a different take of a war film, plus Jim Caviezel’s performance was really affecting. I like that one better than this even though I’m generally not a war film fan.

      I’d still give this one a shot though, who knows you might actually like it 🙂

      1. Perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. I really, really didn’t like it, but I can’t hate the film for being what it is. I think I’m definitely in that minority of folks who don’t like Maclick’s vision of what film is all about.

  7. That does it!!! I am officially not watching this movie unless if it is played in TV. You….who like softer movies than me (meaning drama) dozed of while watching this!! I would do worse than dozing….plus the actor is the one I always avoid

    1. Ha..ha.. your comment makes me laugh, Nov. I know you’re more into thrillers and stuff happening on screen, then perhaps it’s not for you. We both share the same view about Pitt and Penn, but I watched this film more for Malick.

  8. Good review Ruth, I like your honesty. I don’t know if i’ll watch this now. I liked Thin Red Line a lot but I tend to need a plot or at least one character to draw me in.

  9. I just saw it over the weekend. I found it visually stunning, but also completely gratuitous. 20 minutes of volcanoes and dinosaurs and planets and running water might look like eye candy, but it’s completely unnecessary. More often than not, it felt like Malick screaming “HEY, AUDIENCE! Look what I can do!!!”

    And he’s done stuff like that before, but it’s usually blended very well into the rest of his films. The audience isn’t getting bashed over the head with it.

    Having said that, it’s a bold movie to make and I appreciate that he took a chance like that. It’s a good movie, to be sure. Just not one that I particularly enjoyed or ever care to see again.

    1. I guess you could say it’s gratuitous, I’d probably use the word indulgent which I forgot to say on the post. I don’t know if he’s showing off though, doesn’t seem like Malick’s style to do that. I’m with you that it’s a technically GOOD film that I just can’t get my head around.

  10. I like this very honest review. For me, I really really like it. I watched it 2 times at theatre and I have the DVD now which makes my life complete. Also, I was crying at some parts, esp towards the ending. Your last paragraph really is the best way to put this film.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this… I did too on some parts, just in the end it didn’t stay with me as I thought I would. That’s always nice when a film touched you in a profound way.

  11. Ted S.

    Nice review Ruth, believe it or not I still haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m still waiting for the price of the BD to come down, it’s way too expensive at the moment. I remember reading the script and not sure what the heck was going on, so I’m sure the movie might be even more confusing. But as a Malick fanatic, I’ll probably enjoy the film anyway.

    1. Wow Ted, I’m quite surprised you haven’t seen it yet as I know you love Malick. Let me know what you think once you do. So you read the script? Must be a quick read 🙂

  12. Brilliant post. I don’t think Tree of Life is a film we necessarily need to “get”. Like you said in your post, it’s more about how it makes us feel. It took me out of my paradigm, and allowed me to view mortality from a different perspective. I think the lack of emotion added to the extra-terrestrial feel.

    1. Wow, I love what you said Sammy. Yeah, never has a message about mortality presented in a more beautiful way… like a poem. Interesting notion about the extra-terrestrial feel, I never thought of it in that sense.

  13. I’ve seen this twice and while it’s a flawed movie and definitely feels overindulgent at times (the birth of the universe sequence, the last 20 minutes) I really liked it for what it is, an unique spiritual experience. Glad you gave it a look Ruth!

    1. Took me forever but I finally got to see it, Cas. Despite what I’ve heard I just had to experience it for myself and I definitely didn’t regret it.

  14. FUNK

    Most excellent post.
    I Have always enjoyed the movies Malick has done, and I’m looking forward to watching the TOF this long holiday weekend. Really looking forward to the part of early earthly stages, the solar system and music score to that. May have to watch 2001 A Space Odyssey, first though, to get myself in the proper frame of mind.

  15. I am glad that you got to see it. I understand your feelings about it. The fact that you are indifferent is not a bad thing.

    I agree with Castor in that it does feel overindulgent at times. Man! How did you like that dinosaur?! haha

    An honest review of your feelings about the film! I like your thoughts!

    1. Hi T, I really thought I’d either love it or hate it, so it’s kind of odd that I feel neither. The dino is pretty cool though I kept hoping the big t-rex would suddenly show up too, ahah.

  16. I still haven’t seen this film but I’d like to. I’m not familiar with Terrence Malick so I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what it will be like.

    Very well written review, Ruth, and I love the concept behind a tree of life.

  17. Well, my feelings were about the same. It had some beautiful imagery, but the story itself was quite boring and there were moments I was contemplating leaving the theatre. I rated it a 7, but if I would have only looked at it’s entertainment value I would have given it a 4.

  18. It’s nice to hear your thoughts on this one, Ruth. Honestly, I just didn’t know what to think when I first saw this film. From the reviews, many seemed to either love it or hate it.

    p.s. If you ever see the movie, “Splice,” I felt the same way with that one as well. After watching the movie, I just didn’t know what to think either!! 🙂

  19. Interesting thoughts Ruth. it is even more illuminating having not seen the film. I perhaps have preconceptions going in but that’s not a bad thing…I think it is one of those films where each person takes something different from it. Now I have a base to begin with.

    1. You’re right Dan, everyone should give this a shot regardless of what others have said. I really don’t know how each person will come away with after seeing this.

  20. I saw it last month, I think, and it left me divided, I still don’t know to say if I liked it or not! You should check my review if you are interested! Great post, as usual!

  21. We chatted about this over in my neck of the woods, but I’ll give my two cents here, too.

    First, it’s a beautiful film. Beautiful. It might be the most beautiful of the year, which is tough when you’ve got stuff like Hugo out there as competition. But looking great and being great are two separate things, and I think my primary conclusion on Tree of Life is that it’s the kind of unusual, non-traditional story that’s so complex that it’ll take several years for any real, solid consensus to develop regarding it.

    It’s not the sort of film that can easily be judged on one viewing and even after several viewings, it kind of defies placement and categorization. Is this a gallimaufry of self-indulgence, or is Malick’s piece of art totally cohesive? Is there a reason we need to see the dinosaurs and both the formation and destruction of Earth? Or is that just sort of window dressing on the path to examining Jack’s path from boyhood to manhood and his eternal struggle against the two wills of his parents?

    These questions and others have to be answered before Tree of Life finds its place as a masterpiece in the cinematic lexicon, but there’s no doubt that it’s an absolutely essential 2011 film and the sort of film that absolutely must be seen to be believed.

  22. Pingback: Review: ‘The Tree of Life’ (2011) | Film Police

  23. Pingback: Trailer Spotlight: Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’ starring Christian Bale |

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