Movie Review: The Tree of Life

What the hell did I just watch…?

Back in film school, in my 16mm production class, one of our projects was to do a self-portrait film.  I took it upon myself to make a two and a half-minute mishmash of nonsense.  I took a paper mache model I built for a crappy 101 art class I was taking at the time, and just filmed it in weird locations, made everything look as artsy as possible, and combined it with a slew of sound effects that I recorded that had NOTHING to do with imagery (frying an egg, opening a door, moving some sand, etc.)  Just random images with random noise, none of it had any significance to myself, or basically anything.  I did this with the intent that I could bring it to class, not say anything, and everyone would think it’s some sort of powerful symbolic statement.  I couldn’t have been more right.  I got oddly in-depth analysis from my classmates, a big thumbs up from my professor, and an easy A.  It was crazy.  I learned a big lesson by doing that project.  Basically, if you make something with a lot of unexplainable random nonsense, people will think you’re an artistic genius.  (For the record, the rest of my film school work was actually done with creativity and hard work, but I had to do that self-portrait film to prove a point about film analysis…  …to myself, I guess?)

Anyway, The Tree of Life almost immediately reminded me of that project as I was watching it.  I can’t say for sure the intent of Terrence Malick, I’m actually leaning towards he actually did have some vision, and the images he used actually made sense to him.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the other way.  Just a giant hack job, filled with nonsensical explosions of color, begging for unwarranted analysis.  I can imagine what editing this film was like:

Malick:  OK great, dinner conversation scene, good good, alright CUT TO CARNIVAL SHOTS.

Editor:  Wait, what?

Malick:  Yeah Carnival shots, then kid in the attic, the same kid 8 years later walking down the street at night, OK OK, now BOOM dandelions, LOTS of dandelions.

Editor:  Oh, well we were doing the dinner sce-  Ya know what, I think I understand, come back tomorrow morning Mr. Malick.  I’ll handle this.

Malick:  Good, don’t forget the dinosaurs.

(editor puts the footage in two and a half hours of random order, writes TREE OF LIFE really big in sharpie)

I don’t care if I get criticized for not wanting to do any film analysis on Tree of Life, it’s all just too obvious for that.  That’d be letting Tree of Life win.  I like when you can read deeper into movies for added value, but I don’t like it when you CAN’T watch it without being FORCED into reading into it.

Basically the movie is a below average, fraction of a story told in an unconventional way.  That fraction of a story is SURROUNDED by gratuitous footage.  And it is a story that’s definitely not strong enough to sustain an audience without the additional mayhem around it.  Restraint is a concept that was nowhere near this production.  So many long (albeit pretty looking) shots that, in my opinion, don’t make that much sense.  Maybe I didn’t get it?  I probably don’t, actually.  I know, though, that I didn’t like it.  And it was kind of boring.

All the best moments came from tension caused by Brad Pitt’s character being an asshole.  Which was usually followed by three minutes of shots of people walking down streets.  Cue random voiceover.  Go back to the shred of a story that’s in the film for two minutes.  Closeups of flowers.  Space explosion.  Brad Pitt reading newspaper.  Dinosaurs.  Horrible, unsatisfying ending.  Let’s call it a day.

Don’t even get me started on Sean Penn’s character.  Why was he even in this movie?  I can’t believe he gets billing over Jessica Chastain.  He has one line of dialogue in the whole film!!  I can see why people would like this film, though.  It does have ambition, I’ll give it that.  Ultimately, the ambition ends up killing anything that resembles a functional movie.  The cinematography is fantastic, too, it’s well shot.  But yeah…  I did not like The Tree of Life.  But I liked it better than Sucker Punch.

3.5 out of 10

6 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Tree of Life

  1. Tim says:

    I agree that the film is not as perfect as many people say it is. But Malick obviously does not makes his cuts as random as you put it. He is spending months in the editing room to find the right cuts until they fit his vision.

    I believe that his vision will not be a 100% what his original intentions were at the start of shooting, but it is (of course) impossible to have a 100% clear vision an what you want to tell and show before you actually have the images as they are, shot and developed, to be seen as what they are and how they can be used in his bigger concept, right there on the screen.

    Malick is not putting his vision on a story and screenplay that is fix – he is painting his images in the editing room as any other artist, with a true sense of flow, pace, for nuances, subtle emotions, and a great deal of philosophical questions. Putting the biggest questions in our lives, about life and death will always be a little underwhelming as you try to give clues about it, because there is no true answer to them.

    Malick is not a director, he’s an artist. His film as a work of an artist is not thàt hard to get, but you should remind yourself that you watch his films as you’re watching a painting or a symphony – not to get it- but to be moved, to be triggered, or to be interested in what the artist has pulled of. Film ìs an art form. Sometimes Art is a piss pot (Duchamps). Sometimes it’s a lot of crap with nothing to it, no meaning at all, that yet, everybody is raving about. And seeing the Tree of Life and perhaps any other film of Terrence Malick, maybe nature is the greatest art of all. But even though nature might have no “meaning”, you can not watch it without being overwhelmed, can you?

    I agree some people are just applauding the film because it is different and they mistake the ambition and scope of the film with the achievements of a real masterpiece (whatever the definition of that might be). The film was always over- and underwhelming at different moments, not always succeeding in jumping seamless from one part of earth’s history to another, but I guess if Malick wouldn’t have started working on this film before he knew how to make these jumps seamless, he couldn’t have made no film about these sort of big questions at all. Although the film has the same flaws as any other artwork, religion or philosophy (how do you make the invisible visible?) it does leave a big impression.

    Its not a film or story to “understand”, it’s a film you should feel – you don’t have to “get” it, you just have to watch it, but you do have to wonder about the themes of the film, how the mysteries of life and earth might work, and most of all: you do this by letting the images, the flow, the questions, the words in the voice over, and the story come to you, in all beauty, and dualities (in all motherly warmth and fatherly severity, trees and skyscrapers, nostalgia and melncholy, in all the peace and burst of violence) as they are represented in the film!

    To say that you just want to watch a film and understand it as it unfolds, is as to say you want to live your life and watch life going by without trying to ask yourself the same questions. You don’t sit on the beach watching the sun setting, and saying “I don’t get it”.

    • scottodactyl says:

      I admire your take on the film, and if you saw something more, something genuinely artistic, then I’m happy for you. It just didn’t work for me, even as a fluid artistic experience. Good write up for the other point of view, though.

  2. nick says:

    After having just watched the movie, I was understandably moved to google “tree of life what the fuck” (about 13,100,100 results). Your Malick/editor dialog made the film all worthwhile for me, thanks 🙂

    • Royce Moyer says:

      @nick – finding your comment has made my day! I was flipping channels and found myself watching this movie (missed the first 15 or so minutes). After the end, I immediately googled the same querry as you – which was what I kept asking myself so often during the film. 🙂

  3. Jonny L says:

    First off commenter Tim…you’re an absolute idiot! This was the best article I’ve read in regards to this movie and you hit the nail on the head…it was terrible! I’m here for exactly the same reason commenters nick and Royce Moyer were. I had to google all of this myself because I couldn’t believe how bad this movie was. Who the $%#& cares how deep, artsy, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. a film is. If it sucks, it sucks…end of story. FINAL THOUGHTS: This director/writer should kindly crawl in a whole and cover himself up with the pile of crap which was this movie. He also shouldn’t be getting any credit for the beauty of the film. Save that for the cinematographer and steadicam operator! There is no amount of dinosaurs or vfx could’ve made this horrendous flick any better. The only thing that could’ve made it better is having not made it at all.

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