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By Don R. Lewis | June 2, 2011

There’s a very terse scene in Terence Malick’s long gestating “The Tree of Life” that, for better or worse, is an extremely apropos summary of how I felt about much of the film. In the scene, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt), a prototypical hard-a*s 1950’s era father, is literally demanding the attention of his wife and three boys at the dinner table as he tells one of his many, seemingly pointless stories that tie into his feelings about life. The story gets off track and rambles and O’Brien gradually loses each child’s attention as well as the attention of his wife and then finally, his own temper. To O’Brien the story is key in understanding life as he understands it and he wants to be heard and understood. To his family, it’s just one of many tedious parables that they endure under threat of physical or emotional violence. While I never found “The Tree of Life” all that tedious, nor did it threaten me in any way, it did tend to test my endurance and many times I felt as though Malick’s extremely personal film was so personal it bordered on alienating.

Yet even writing that paragraph fills me with the feeling that not only am I not doing the film justice, I’m also dismissing a piece of art that’s so big, intriguing and beautiful it’s hard not to keep reflecting back on the scenes both visually and in terms of their text and to want to dig deeper into what they mean. “The Tree of Life” almost defies criticisms (particularly after only one viewing) and rating it with a star or an upward or downward appendage is like slapping ketchup on your filet mignon. This is big stuff and while I’ll readily admit I mentally checked out a few times during the long, long run time, I still can’t quite put my finger on what it all means and as such, I can’t dismiss it altogether. But I also can’t say I really liked it all that much either.

The film opens with a gaseous cloud floating in endless space. Soon, forces cause it to swirl and it attracts particles and before you know it, BANG! It morphs and changes and the Earth is created. Yes, Malick goes there and then to primordial ooze and into the birth of life much closer to what we recognize today. It is in these scenes, along with eloquent talk of how inside of each of us there is the rougher “nature” and the more forgiving “grace,” that the premise of not only this film is formed, but also an auteuristic statement that anyone paying attention to Malick’s films probably caught a long time ago.

Soon we meet Jack O’Brien (Penn), a modern day man who gives new meaning to the word brooding. It’s Penn at his hang-doggiest and his performance is the only thing that really, truly bugged me about the whole film. I’m all for a downer dude on the screen but Penn as Jack gives us nothing to work with in terms of relating to him and seeing Penn wordlessly mope around was irritating. We know little about him as a man other than he seems estranged from his wife (or girlfriend) and sulkily works in huge glass buildings. He seems content to not throw rocks but should perhaps throw down a few prozac instead. Soon we flashback to suburban Texas in the 1950s with Jack as a child (played wonderfully by Hunter McCracken) and this is where “The Tree of Life” really takes hold.

The scenes of young Jack living and growing amidst the push of his aggro-patriarch and the pull of his sweet, ethereal mother (Chastain) are the meat and potatoes of the film and viewers spend most of their time with Jack and his brothers. The gray area life Jack experiences as a child has apparently made him incapable of feeling happy or sad later in life. Or… something. It’s never all that clear what’s bugging adult Jack and that again caused me to wonder if Malick had missed the mark or I had missed the clues. Again, Malick is intrigued by the yin and yang in all of us but does that inner strife mean we’re just going to be super grumpy forevermore?

While Terrence Malick has never been big on interviews, a quick peek into what is known of him shows he grew up in rural Texas in the 1950s and endured the loss of a brother at an early age. These are key points in this film as well so it seems clear the film, particularly the 1950’s scenes, are highly autobiographical. I found them poetic and dreamy and their near lackadaisical flow from one to the other cast a sort of dream state over me and many times I found myself hearkening back to my own boyhood adventures. But, is that a good thing? Shouldn’t a viewer be so rapt with what’s onscreen that they can’t think of anything but the movie playing before their eyes? In many cases, I’d say yes. But with “The Tree of Life,” it’s as if Malick was tapping into my personal past and I found myself relating to young Jack’s rebellious nature and was recalling memories from my childhood that I hadn’t thought of in years. While I found it interesting the film had dredged up so much, I normally prefer to reflect like that after the movie is over. And then there’s those dinosaurs.

Yes, everyone seems to be making a big to-do about the inclusion of some dinos and yup, they’re there. They look cool and I’m honestly not entirely certain what purpose they serve. Throughout the film we see nature cruelly picking on weaker natured beasts and, again, this is a running theme of Malick’s career. But the dinosaurs didn’t seem to fit. In fact a lot of what Malick’s getting at here (or what I think he’s getting at) doesn’t seem to fit but this is his story, it fits for him and pointing a critical finger for that just seems wrong. The nature (or risk) of art this personal is that it’s important to the artist but may or may not resonate with the viewer.

But much like the internal struggle between nearly every living thing in the film, I find myself struggling to know if I actually liked “The Tree of Life” or simply appreciated the attempt. Every time I think I hated it, I recall a bunch of scenes that are nearly perfect or a memory of a certain shot will come back to me and feel nearly overwhelming. Back and forth it goes in my mind like a meta version of the theme of the film. At the end of the day, I think it’s a good thing to have to continuously chew on a film but then again, does this mean I have to pay for the two and a-half hour meal all over again to fill in the blanks? “The Tree of Life” is something different and should really be seen on the big screen, just don’t expect the secrets of life to be revealed although we do see how it all began and how it might end. At least through one man’s eyes.

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  1. Amy R. Handler says:

    Wow, that makes sense, considering what we said about Penn’s sadly lacking character. Six hours sounds a little hefty, though, and might only appeal to hard-core cineastes and philosophy enthusiasts (hmmm, sounds suspiciously like me…). Are there any other 6-hour films out there? I can think of a lot of 4-hour movies but not any running 6.

  2. Don R. Lewis says:

    Did anyone catch that rumor that Malick is preparing a SIX HOUR CUT of the movie. Man. As someone who’s STILL not sure I liked the film or want to revisit it, I’d find it tough to pass up a 6 hour cut if I could see it.

  3. Amy R. Handler says:

    We also can’t forget a possible philosophical foundation. Martin Heidegger comes to mind, with his interpretation of Nietsche’s “Will to Power.” This can be considered in relation to Heidegger’s own theories of Being— and its destruction, along with whatever that destruction creates! There is a definite “religious” flair running through the film, but maybe not in any traditional breakdown of specific beliefs.

    What’s so great about “Tree” is its immense power to make us think—about everything!

  4. Joe Billy says:

    I think that with his film Malick draws a line in hyperspace and all our lives intercept it one way or another (or, does that line just touch our lives and move on?). I grew up in Rhodesia of the 60’s and my dad drove a chevy similar to some we see in the movie. So to me the time frame seems to have moved by a decade but I can relate to many items in the movie. The family with a strict father who wants to harden his beloved kids. This is my direct experience and in this case I was the blond youngest one. We also had a pellet gun and in my body I bear marks from experimental injury by my brother but I did not tell on him. There is a lot of water in the movie: water kills by drowning, water gives life, water as tears, lots of tears, water everywhere until a bridge over troubles waters at the end… The sun also means someing deeper in the movie. We see the setting sun we wee the sun in the zenith we see the surface of the sun with a planetary transition. I guess those that understand cabbalah or occult will get much more out of this movie. I guess the Cabbalah has the notion of the tree of life with a faminine side offering grace and a masculine one with judgement.

    Having said that we cannot ignore the Christian symbols in the movie. They all meet at the beautiful shore in the sweet by and by as the Christian song says.

  5. JeanRZEJ says:

    I found that by considering the form and function of the film’s parts greatly aided in appreciating why they were so unfamiliarly composed and, ultimately, how amazing they were as ephemeral pieces conjoined into an impressionistic embellishment of not just memory but also a sort of ‘nostalgic aspiration’ – I certainly don’t think that it represents Malick’s actual memories, but the memories crafted in such a way to express how he feels about his life, about his brother, about how he wants to feel about his brother, about the way he and his family dealt with the situation, and how they should have and should now deal with the situation. I got the impression that the film was an effort to provide the foundation to transform the relatively vacant emotional space of the film’s present into the richness of the past, or at least the past in those moments where the pettiness could be overcome – and, of course, this will necessarily tie into his beliefs about the meaning of life, in this case religious, and why should he not convey his own feelings about that? I see no preaching, no commandments, only reflection and hopefulness in the pure moments, moments often surrounding or confronting moments of negativity, of thoughtless harmfulness, etc. There’s something beautiful in the moment where the one brother trusts the other with the bb gun, and this trust doesn’t pan out, but they find a way to overcome it. That, really, is what comes across most sublimely and most forcefully to me, whether in a personal or existential or metafictional or religious way. It ends with a bridge, after all. It’s about overcoming, and there’s no command as to which bridge to take.

  6. Amy R Handler says:

    That’s interesting. My initial take was that it was primarily a silent film, and that any dialogue was non-dialogue. I also felt Hebrew Kabbalah tendencies (apart from the obvious tree of life symbol) at play with Christian Kabbalah, but want to go back and see the film again, to test these ideas. What most shocked me, was the philosophically-induced sky footage which resembled an experimental film I made. Being poor, however, I shot and edited mine the old fashioned way, with no CGI gimmicks. Also, my scenes are far more angry and ambiguous than Malick’s sweeter, more explained version.
    I also took “the way of nature” bit to be more Taoist and hopeful.
    All I know is Malick’s film brings out some intensely strong reactions, and I think that’s cool.

  7. David Finkelstein says:

    Just to put my two cents in: FilmThreat readers may know me as the reviewer here whose beat is to cover experimental films, and I’m particularly fond of poetic films, slow films, films with unconventional forms, and films with big ideas, but I have to say that I found this to be one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen. Despite the apparently autobiographical nature of the material, I didn’t find one character, moment or line of dialogue to ring true for me. The movie felt as if it consisted entirely of sentimental clichés and Christian propaganda. Even the abstract visual sections, amazingly, seemed to consist entirely of visual and musical clichés, which I found tiresomely manipulative. Philosophically, I knew I was going to be in trouble near the film’s beginning, when the narrator announces the Christian ideal that “the way of nature” leads to destruction and doom. The whole film felt to me like a sanctimonious sermon of suffering which made my Jewish/Pagan soul cringe. The ending, with its vision of Heaven in which everyone smiles and hugs each other, is an appropriately inane ending to this moronic movie.

  8. Amy R Handler says:

    No, you didn’t plant the seed with Penn. I was confused by Penn’s performance in general, and didn’t even connect that he was Jack! For some reason, I thought the middle brother had died. Learning that Penn was Jack made the portrayal all the more wrong because young Jack had apologized to his brother when they were kids. Remember, Jack said, “I’m sorry,” and “You’re my brother…” The boys had made friends again, and the middle brother did accept Jack’s apology. Not only that, Brad Pitt apologized for being so hard on young Jack, etc.

    Of course, there’s always that nagging possibility that Malick as writer/director, told Penn to play the part the way he did—and who are we to argue.

    I hope that everyone sees the film too, just because the basic theme is so universal— no matter how Malick gets there. What’s also so great, is that this is the furthest Malick has ever gone experimentally! It’s a superb example of independent film as it should be, and I’m not even focusing on the effects (BTW, I’ve never seen “2001” so I can’t buy into that branch of criticism)!

  9. Don R. Lewis says:

    I agree about the dinosaurs; kind of “since the beginning of time, there’s always been someone bigger who isn’t afraid to let you know that” but, it just seemed on the nose. Or more like “we paid for it, we’re f*****g USING that s**t!”

    I hope I didn’t plant a seed in your mind about Penn’s performance but still, it irritates me. I wonder if it was cut to pieces in the editing bay? There had to be more to it I think. Plus, his upbringing wasn’t *that* bad! It seemed wrought with the same tribulations all boys have.

    Glad you saw it though, Amy. Can’t wait for others to get a chance!

  10. Amy R Handler says:

    I just returned from seeing “The Tree of Life,” and adored all aspects of the film except Sean Penn’s portrayal of Jack. Since Jack was a principal character in the movie (magnificently enacted by young Hunter McCracken), it would have been nice if Penn could have given a bit more vitality and a little less confusion to this very meaty role.
    As for the dinosaurs, I believe they had a 2-fold meaning. The first more obvious meaning being our taught-perceptions of the earth’s beginnings, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The second interpretation being more psychological-personification, pits child-Jack’s character against his more aesthetic younger brother. This is seen when the larger dinosaur bullies the smaller, and makes him cringe in fear.

    All in all, “The Tree of Life” is a violent and beautiful film that should be seen several times to glean its full essence—and even then, there will be much to talk about.

  11. Tanya says:

    I felt the same way. I love Terrence Malick for being such a fantastic cinematographer and for doing his own thing so I have a lot of patience for his films overall. I thought it was really interesting that you mentioned reflecting on your childhood as you were watching the film because I was reflecting on my decision to get married in the near future and what that would mean as far as family dynamics. I think it says something for the film that it is able to tap into those things so immediately. Like you, I’m not generally consciously thinking about life while I’m in the middle of watching a movie but that is exactly what happened. Having that experince actually enhanced the movie for me.

  12. Amy R. Handler says:

    The film is coming my way next Friday. After that, we’ll talk!

  13. Don R. Lewis says:

    The 3-star thing was based on me STILL not knowing what to make of the film tied in with “well, it’s better than 2 and 1/2 but I’m not sure it’s 3 and 1/2…”. I still struggle with my feelings on the film; maybe it’s just not something you can “like” or “hate.” I definitely recommend film buffs see it though and see it on the big screen as well. It’s definitely worthy of a conversation afterwards.

  14. Amy R. Handler says:

    I really like this review, which is more like a struggle with yourself to try to understand Malick’s intentions than anything else. Good luck with that! I haven’t seen the film yet– but am moved to see it asap, based on your article. Malick has a true knack for creating films that get into a person’s head, and stay there. Your review is a perfect example of that— and it’s a truly honest assessment of how the film affected you. BTW, how did you come up with the 3-star rating?

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