Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

[Edited 12/28/11]

"God is closer to me than others of my art."
-Ludwig van Beethoven

In 1733, Johann Sebastian Bach, born and raised a Lutheran, premiered two pieces of what would become his Mass in B minor, which he spent the remaining years of his life expanding and honing until the liturgy used for both major Christian denominations became a full-blown Roman Catholic Mass. Composed in chunks up to his final years, his Missa is disjunctive, consisting of clashing textures reflecting both the different kinds of inspiration that drove him in each writing block as well as the altered emotional state of the composer as he drifted into blindness and illness. Yet the result is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Western classical music, the apotheosis of nearly every musical style of its time in one grand, summarizing statement.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life may be the closest the cinema has to its own Mass in B minor: it's gargantuan, encompassing, messy and bold. It's also exquisitely beautiful and personal on a level seemingly impossible for something that feels so vast. Bach spent about two decades tweaking and expanding his mass; Malick has been collecting ideas and images for this for 30 years, and the inspirations behind it likely stretch back even further. The Missa comprises movements under four distinct sections, and The Tree of Life incorporates the themes and styles of the director's four previous features into a film that feels infinite and minute, unwieldy yet perversely whole.

The Tree of Life follows the O'Brien family, in nonlinear fashion from the formation of their nucleus in the '50s through the present day, with a brief stop-over in the Vietnam era (the opening of the film) when the mother (Jessica Chastain) received a telegram informing her of the death of one of her sons in combat. Most of the film centers on the adolescence of the protagonist, Jack (Sean Penn as a grown man, Hunter McCracken as a boy), as he grows up in a Waco suburb that must draw on some of Malick's memories growing up in the area. In that sense, he might have been planning the film, in one fashion or another, his entire life.

It is fitting that such a work, an impressionistic phantasmagoria drawing on the director's own memories of growing up in Texas, should require anyone wishing to speak about it to reveal something of his own life. For me, it is also necessary, as I recognized so much of myself in the young, confused Jack I occasionally could not bear to look at the screen for seeing my own reflection.

Take the way Jack and the old of his kid brothers regard a man with cerebral palsy hobbling across the street or a child with permanent hair loss and scarring from being trapped in a house fire: they look wild-eyed and intrusive, staring after the afflicted in disbelief. But there's no malice in those looks, only the shock of the unknown to a child unexposed to someone different. That brought back painful memories of 8th grade, in which I was walking to class one day and a younger girl in front of me whipped 'round suddenly and revealed deep, disfiguring scarring from burns. I'd never seen this before, and the shock of it made me literally skid to a halt, and I don't even want to think what the look on my face must have been. I swear I was not mocking or condescendingly piteous, just taken aback, but the look of familiarity in her expression, of having seen whatever my face was time and again, made me so ashamed I walked with my head down for the next two years, to the point that people asked me all the time if something was wrong. I couldn't bear to be seen by her (and it was hard to hide as a fat redhead at least half a head taller than nearly everyone around me); worse, I couldn't face the look of recognition on her face if she did. When I saw the palsied man almost struggle not to look back and see the looks already burned in his memory from repetition or the burned child just try to be normal as the impressionistic camera shows just how much the other boys focused solely on his injury, I felt like looking down at the ground once more.

Likewise, a scene of Jack tricking his brother into placing his finger on the end of a loaded BB gun barrel, with predictable results, made me think of a similar (though accidental) incident from my own childhood, in which I carelessly fired what I thought was an empty BB gun at a friend's sister. I only bruised her arm, but I felt such a wave of revulsion that I lost all my boyish enthusiasm for guns of any sort, and the scene here made my face flush hot with recognition and disgust.

These are the finely observed minutiae that make the film so potently tangible despite its ambitions. The film's middle section stays with the family, and we see how they evolve emotionally through the quick glances of floating memory. A frog tied to a toy rocket, a loving gesture from a complicated father, the cute girl in class brushing back her hair to reveal a nape you'd give all the money in the world to caress despite being to young and clueless to even know what a caress is or how to adequately "perform" one, it all swirls in a stream of consciousness. Malick has always used juxtaposition and montage to dig into his emotional and philosophical ideas, but this film, featuring a camera that never ceases its movement and constant cuts, almost feels like one long montage. It makes for a Joycean (and Faulknerian, as the characters muse on their place in the universe in a way that seems an extrapolation from Faulkner's meditations on the South) collection of scattered yet indelible images evocative of a time and place that is not my own but resonates with almost alarming specificity.

From the ever-shifting images comes a fair-handed, deeply human view of a family with an existence instead of a narrative. Through Malick's probing, floating lens, we see how Jack's upbringing shapes him and how the forces at work on him are not as simple as they appear. Chastain's mother is nurturing and gentle to the point of being elven, and her beauty and care clearly lays the foundation for Jack's initial dealings with lust. Meanwhile, Pitt's father is stern to the point that he borders on abusive, and on occasion he crosses that line, bringing out Jack's penchant for anger and violence. But neither the mother nor the father serves as an empty embodiment of maternal care and patriarchal terror, and their complexity sheds light on the other juxtapositions of the film, preventing The Tree of Life from simply being an exercise in dualism or dialectics.

Though she gives strength to her children, Mrs. O'Brien has little of her own, and Jack eventually comes to resent the same innocence and grace that made him love her when he realizes it paralyzes her. Pitt, in what may be his finest performance, portrays the unnamed dad (what kid remembers his parents by their first names, anyway?) as a man who does not know how to love his kids not because he is a masculine man but because his adoration of them is so overwhelming he can find no suitable outlet. Unfortunately, his misplaced self-loathing—he berates himself for wasting time trying to be a musician as he tries to make it as an entrepreneur and become rich—does find expression, and the three boys come to fear their father's temper and his controlling nature.

It is crucial, however, to note that Pitt never comes off merely as an abusive stereotype. As with Jack, he feels so real that one feels as if we are intruding upon their lives. Mr. O'Brien reminded me of the father in Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, though not nearly as tyrannical. Both have instances of monstrosity, and the effect they have on their children is harmful, but both exhibit moments of unfiltered love for the children they unintentionally addle. Mr. O'Brien wants his sons' love so badly he demands they kiss him on the cheek and hug him whenever he comes home, thus removing the love from the situation entirely. But Malick introduces him in the pre-Big Bang sequence doubling over in grief when he learns of his son's death, showing how deep his affection and care runs before peeling back the dark side of that devotion and desire to see his children succeed where he failed. Jack too never becomes the little fascist he occasionally seems, fleeting gestures like abruptly hugging his father for comfort or laying a hand on the shoulder of the burned boy showing his own capacity for kindness.

What's amazing about The Tree of Life is that Malick can paint such a fractured yet emotionally cohesive portrait of a family while always making clear that they are not the true focus of the film. Before we truly get to know them, the director breaks up the action with an extended view of the creation of the entire universe. It's a bold, disjunctive move that will alienate many (and has already), yet it is the clearest and fullest visualization of Malick's desire to link humankind to nature. But the montage is stunning, using CGI only when absolutely necessary and relying on experimental techniques and nature footage elsewhere to paint the birth and growth of existence. A common complaint registered about the film is that it feels like a nature documentary, but not even something as accomplished as Planet Earth features shots as overwhelming as the ones Malick assembles, and certainly not with the same suggestive properties.

To go back to the beginning, Malick's film might also tie into Bach's Mass in its open religious content. Opening with a quote from the Book of Job, The Tree of Life announces its spirituality from the start, and its Catholic imagery and whispered ruminations on God do not shy away from taking an explicitly religious (not just vaguely spiritual) approach to life. At the same time, I can't imagine church groups booking block-tickets, as its depiction of the universe, and of God, is too complex to fit in any neatly packaged interpretation of any theism. Its view of creation follows the scientific explanation, opening with the flare of the Big Bang and evolving over billions of years as gas coalesces into stars and planets emerge from the cooling inferno. Life slowly accumulates in the swirling ocean and solidifying magma of Earth, makes its way to land and keeps shifting until the present day.

The film's view of God is even more complex, as it cannot fall back on science. The O'Brien family muses over God, questions His existence and motives when evil befalls them and wonders if they will meet him in death. Malick, on the other hand, presents God in an unorthodox fashion. Rather than an observer and manipulator of the universe, God is the universe, forged in the same kiln that spewed out the rest of creation. There is no heaven nor hell, nor any particular need of faith, only a connected nerve system of space-time given life by the memories it contains.

But those who mistake Malick's vision as a Christian one neglect its original ideas: what need have we for a savior, an avatar of the Lord sent for sacrifice, when everyone is the personification of God? That view goes beyond mainstream religion, and Malick's God is too much of an all-encompassing force to be a specific entity. The film itself embodies God: it's omniscient and omnipresent, yet it dwells within each of its characters until the multiple voiceover narrations common to Malick's oeuvre at last begin to overlap in a conflicting yet unified whole.

Despite the flourish of the first part and the grandiose meditations on the nature of God and the universe, the film's epic sweep always ties back into the humans amidst the bombast. Jack's tumultuous, budding emotions of desire and rage find a visual counterpoint in the suppurating lava and roiling seas of Earth's own violent, confused emergence into being and maturity. The scenes of Jack as a toddler are all filmed from extreme low angles, those of a child's point of view. As the camera tilts up to view the mother or a flight of stairs that seems insurmountable to an infant, everything looms in ways at once intimidating and beckoning. A child always has the purest view of God, because a child already must look up at everything and everyone. At times, I felt that sense of childlike wonder: one of the shots of galaxies growing from the primordial soup mixed milky whites and rippling browns to the point I thought "It looks like melted ice cream!" with such overwhelming, single-minded euphoria I quickly looked around to make sure I hadn't genuinely shouted it.

The beach where the adult Jack spends most of his on-screen time itself feels like one of the still-evolving and forming areas seen in the planet's creation, a prehistoric collection of stone and sand that exists seemingly outside time even as it is clearly the product of it. Malick sets the ending in this area in a sequence that calls to mind heaven but refutes that immediately as many of those gathered are not dead. Instead, the beach, a place with past, present and futuristic connotations, becomes a sort of meeting-place for all souls, a place where all ailments are healed and all transgressions are forgiven, not by God but by those assembled. It's a visualized epiphany, a moment of understanding of and access to the memory bank of all the things that have existed or will exist, where all is one.

Some might find this movie a joyless exercise, though I found moments of humor. Malick displays a light reflexivity at times: he subtly prepares the audience for what's coming with a conversation Jack has with a co-worker about the man's failed relationship. Relating what he said to the woman, the man says, "Story's been told." Jack asks, "What are you gonna do?" "Experiment," replies the man, shortly before the film launches into its creation reverie. Later, Mr. O'Brien defines the term "subjective" for his son. There's also a bit of tense comedy in a scene of Jack trying to lift a piece of meatloaf on one of those flat knives without touching it, as if he anticipates a beating from his father if a finger reaches out to stabilize the meat. But the loaf slips and Jack does steady it with a finger, only for a darkly amusing anticlimax. Malick also telegraphs the shift in Mr. O'Brien from stern but loving to truly frightening with a blast of organ music, played by Mr. O'Brien, no less. And this is a literal reaction to those who found no joy in the movie; if the imagery didn't elicit some kind of response, well, godspeed.

Others might take issue with its religious content and mistakenly identify it as some kind of sermon. As a staunch atheist, I found this to be perhaps the first film to rate with classical music as a truly inspiring demonstration of God through art. I've sometimes joked that I feel sorry for God; he used to have Michelangelo and Bach to praise him, and now he has Kirk Cameron and Christian Rock. These people try to make works about the self-evident nature of God, but frankly they fail because they are mediocre. When one listens to something as beautiful and timeless as Haydn's Creation or Beethoven's 9th, one can almost feel a guiding force because God and art intertwine. As religious as those aforementioned compositions are, they are not preaching documents but expressions of belief and inspiration, and The Tree of Life is such a work. It isn't out to convert you; it's simply one man's personal expression of how he views the universe, and because he does not seek to speak for others, others can come naturally to it.

To those who would call the film "pretentious," to hell with you. It's one of the least useful words in the English language, and whether you like the film or not, none of the term's connotations (for it is as vague as it is insipid) apply to this movie. I cannot say that I have ever seen a more personal film, at least not one with Hollywood A-listers and a sizable production budget. It's also exceedingly humble, reaching for the stars but making sure to relate its own insignificance in the void it watches. Detractors have already made the film some kind of battleground for reasonable, critical people and "the apologists and fanboys," but I'll be damned if I'm going to apologize for this film. It would be like apologizing for my own life, especially considering how much of it I see in its frames.

The Tree of Life represents the apotheosis of Malick's personal and removed style: there's a view that Malick casts humans as insignificant because he does not give them preferential treatment. This is one of the same points upon which religious people like to attack science. The more we learn about the sheer size and timeframe of the universe, the more humanity is made to look like a flake of dead skin annoyingly hanging on the flesh by a single, hardened cell. I always found it strange that such a line comes up in so many debates on religion vs. secularization, as I think science and theism are linked in that respect: the scientist believes man is but a dust speck in the huge (but finite) reaches of space-time, yet we are the only creatures we've discovered who can even begin to find our place in the void, while the religious believe in a being they cannot fathom who monitors us as if studying an ant farm, yet whose interest in us necessarily elevates humanity to a higher position among all other living things.

If that weren't enough to show how demonstrating our relative scale is not a condescension, incorporating a detailed snapshot of family life among the higher thoughts of the film once and for all puts to rest any notion of Malick's indifference to humanity. He places us as but one small part of nature, yes, but he also suggests that all of nature is God, and, therefore, so are we. As an adult, Jack works as an architect among giant skyscrapers, but his own revulsion of his surroundings does not match the tone of the shots, which remind the audience that the steel and glass monoliths do not cover up nature but reflect it on their surfaces. Malick's films previously argued that the destruction of mankind was a part of nature and not against it, but he goes further here. That the last physical shot of the film is of a bridge shows how Malick has progressed to the point of accepting the man-made world as a part of nature, cementing the idea that everything is connected (and there's no better man-made object to demonstrate connection than a bridge).

So, Bach was a Lutheran finding the meeting point of Protestantism and Catholicism, and Malick is the philosopher finding the nexus of Judeo-Christian religion, pantheistic spirituality and scientific fact. And just as Bach found a conflicting yet unified thread to unite all of Christianity through his art, so too does Malick present a believable, incorporating vision of humanity's placement in the universe. One of the theories of the shape of the universe is that it resembles a saddle, a curved-U with two wings fanning out. That means, from a certain point of view, the universe itself resembles a pair of outstretched arms, questioning and beckoning the void. And if the universe is God, that raises a new question: to whom does God pray?


  1. Nice review; appropriately personal and big-thinking.

    (One correction: I don't think we can assume that the brother died in Vietnam. The mother gets a standard telegram, which would suggest that it wasn't a military death. Unless I missed something.)

    I'm not sure I see the modern building shots as you do -- I didn't see appreciation for beauty or reflection of nature there -- but it's an interesting reading that has me thinking.

    For me it took the second viewing of the film to feel as if I understood where the pieces fit; the Creation sequence, especially, seemed to have a different meaning when I understood what would come after it. Already looking forward to my third viewing, but not enough that I rushed out to see it this weekend. One of the joys of this film is that it clings. I want to revel in that for a while, and then I'll go back for a refill.

  2. That is a brilliant review. I'm still in awe over the film. I saw it yesterday and I'm still trying to work on my review. It is a massive piece of art that transcends pretty the idea of what film is. I hope to see it again when it goes wide.

    It also made me think of my own childhood and how difficult it was to transition from being just a kid to becoming a teenager where it was terrible. You're confused by the ways of the world and you feel like you're parents aren't really these great people you look up to. It kind of hit home for me. I was in tears for some of those scenes including the Creation scene.

    I doubt there will be another film like this and I don't think Malick will ever top this though I still think Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line are still better films.

  3. I wondered about the telegram among other details of the establishing "plot," but I think the main point is that death is a part of life, which Malick choreographs by having the death precede the Creation sequence.

    As for the buildings, I thought that was their significance because of Malick's usual approach: he doesn't condemn anything, even if he points out the ironies (Tom Shone said Malick has none, but The New World is FULL of it and there are some cheeky juxtapositions here). If war and death are harmonious with nature (as in The Thin Red Line), surely other creations of man must be too. Besides, I don't think Malick would give the last shot (excepting that flickering cosmic glow) to a man-made object if he didn't find beauty and meaning in it, especially considering what directly precedes it is anything but critical.

    Since you've seen it twice, I was wondering: do you think that swarm of creatures undulating around the buildings in that early shot were birds or bugs? I wanted to mention it (if only because I was transfixed and it also recalled the locust horde of Days of Heaven), but I was flummoxed.

  4. Void: I'm glad you liked it too and that you also found something personally resonant in it. I cried nearly the whole drive home as it really sank in. It's so hard to talk about it because it's so big yet so humble and intimate. There are plenty of films that can be big and small, but not on this scale, not with this range. I'm sure I'll be called a worshipper, but whatever. I felt things I've never felt from a movie while watching it.

  5. They're birds ... or possibly bats. But I'm pretty sure they're birds.

    I'm closer to you on the bridge; but I thought that some of the skyscraper shots were meant to evoke the box that the oldest child (Penn) is now trapped in ("bumping into walls"), making him long for his youth when he was entirely without borders. More on that in Malick: Part II, of course.

  6. Well done, Jake. A passionate, heartfelt review of a passionate, heartfelt film.

    "These are the finely observed minutiae that make the film so potently tangible despite its ambitions." I also was touched by the film in a deeply personal way, and as I explain in my own post, it really brought back memories of growing up in the late 50s and early 60s with two brothers in California. I LOVED the shots of Jack becoming aware of those who suffer: the boy with the burn; the man with cerebral palsy; the prisoners. I loved how he pictures himself buried in a grave.

    "To those who would call the film "pretentious," to hell with you." Right on! How can such a sincere film be pretentious? Being pretentious is being false. This film is not false.

    The "swarm:" birds. Yes, I suppose they could allude to the locusts in Days of Heaven but I thought more of the flock of birds in The New World.

  7. Hey, Jake. This is a joint post to you and to Sheila O'Malley (@sheilakathleen) with whom you exchanged furious tweets about anyone who had the temerity to disagree about the greatness of this film.

    I know you’re a journalism student and an aspiring film critic, but frankly, you’re going to need a thicker skin—and a more cogent argument--when not everyone sees the genius in your perceptions of genius. And Sheila, you too: I know it’s mean, but I honestly feel that people who write things like “writing about the movie was like opening a vein,” are not awfully worth talking to. Kind of a clichĂ©, you know?

    For the record, three things:

    1. I actually loved the meatloaf moment, and thought the childhood scenes were emotionally as well as visually breathtaking. I agree that those parts of the movie were personal and immediate, and I think this could have been a truly great film--which is exactly what I’m so indignant about its weaknesses. Ultimately “The Tree of Life” didn’t work for me and here’s why (hmm—the line Sheila prescribes would have eaten up 52 of the 140 characters in a tweet): I found all the gorgeous imagery of pounding waves and volcanoes and microscopic life, blah blah blah, to be trite and overblown and self-indulgent; and the mystic mumbo-jumbo of the ending to be utterly vapid. It’s awesome that you both found the movie so, well, awesome; but I’m not quite sure why differing views from myself and others should inspire such a flurry of horrified tweets between the two of you. Defensive, much?

    2. Let me be clear: I can’t speak for others who used the dreaded p-word, but when I wrote “pretentious drivel,” it was not intended as a slur at people who liked the film, but had everything to do with the director/writer/artist. Yes, the wonderful childhood scenes were clearly deeply felt on Malick’s part, but the Origins of Life and dinosaurs (!) and the rapturous ending on the beach? Oh, please. It’s like a series of giant Hallmark greeting cards, with cryptic voice-overs and fulsome orchestration.

    3. Since Sheila, in particular, seems to take attacks on the film as personal attacks on her, I also want to say that I might be a bit peeved at A. O. Scott, who influenced me to waste time and money on this twaddle, but I never heard of either of you before today (or after, I suspect). You’re probably right that I’m not even worth the argument--except I’m just a moviegoer, whereas it’s the job of a film critic to make such arguments instead of telling people who disagree with them to go to hell or “eff off.”

    Good luck with your future endeavors.

  8. I don't know about Houston but Austin has a magnificent bat problem--they live under one of the bridges (Congress I think?) for spring and summer and while I've never been there during that time I've heard stories of swarms that certainly look like that shot in The Tree of Life.

  9. Jason and Jake: I also saw the imagery of buildings to be more reverent and curious than threatening or condemnatory. When Penn's character stares up at them, the camera movement mirrors Malick's typical camera movement when a character walks through the woods and looks up at the trees. He's appreciating the ingenuity of man.

    And thanks for the dismissal of pretension. It makes me sick to hear people still say that. As I wrote in the final paragraph of my essay: "Of all the feature-length explorations of Why We're Here that I've seen, The Tree of Life, despite its cosmic visions and the enormity of its timeline, is one of the least bloated and self-satisfied, and also one of the most intimate." Self-satisfied is the key word there. If pretentious is going to qualify even as halfway valid, I feel one of the criteria must be that the filmmaker seeks to express his ideas as the eternal truth. Malick's not doing that here.

    And this Anonymous guy: kind of a jerk. God forbid A.O. Scott encourages you to spend 10 bucks on such a forward-thinking work of art.

  10. Loved the movie. Loved the review.

    "In a sense, this God is much more Jewish than Christian: what need have we for a savior, an avatar of the Lord sent for sacrifice, when everyone is the personification of God?"

    I guess I'm confused. How is this notion Jewish?

  11. Hal: It isn't Jewish as I say later, but this is not a religious film as Americans stereotypically perceive it. But I said that because it takes off more from the chosen people aspect than of a savior set up. Of course, it ultimately makes its own statement—that man is God— but its point of references for religious matters come far more from the Old Testament than the New.

  12. I am in awe of your massive treatise here. As the one commenter the film...both HUGE and personal. Well done, sir.

  13. I see. Though I would encourage you not to read the testaments in isolation or perceive their themes to be in opposition.

    Anyways, I'm getting off point.

    Like you said, the film is less concerned about God's identity (and I think you're spot-on in saying Malick's God doesn't neatly subscribe to any one specific religious belief system), and is more concerned with how man wrestles with God's character. That, mixed with the gotta-be-somewhat-autobiographic memories makes for one heckuva personal film. Also: kudos for making this such a personal review, too. What viewers bring to a film is often as fascinating as what the film brings to us. Thanks for letting us in.

  14. @Peter (and everyone discussing the swarm): Bat PROBLEM?!? I live in Austin and can assure you they are not a problem. They are an attraction and part of what makes Austin unique--not to mention that they eat billions of mosquitos.
    I've seen the bats swarming, and I instantly thought of them when I saw that part in the film. Given that Malick lives in Austin, I'm pretty sure they were bats.

  15. What a beautiful review. It was a "vast" cinematic treat and I am grateful to bear witness to such unspoken beauty. note: I don't know about Vietnam, and whether his brother fought, but to me, it seemed evident that he committed suicide? His fathers' lamentations of over criticizing him etc. for example..... The storyline resonates on this premise - the absolute yearning that reaches out to the universe, and asks' "why?". mk

  16. And if the universe is God, that raises a new question: to whom does God pray?

    That is a good question.

    I don't know if you will find the answer here, but you may like to have a look:

    1. To whom does God pray? Terrence Malick, apparently.

  17. I just discovered this website and I am very impressed with it. After reading all the hosannas about The Tree of Life, I thought adding my negative opinion might be refreshing. If you ranked Terrence Malick’s films best-to-worst, I think they would be ranked in the order in which he made them. Doesn’t that tell you he has had a steady, forty year decline? The Tree of Life is the movie that Terrence Malick haters have been waiting for. Although there have been impressive moments of ambition and merit in all four of his previous films (The oppressive mood of boredom that leads to death in Badlands; the breathtaking landscapes in Days of Heaven; the ferocious battle in the high grass in The Thin Red Line; the authenticity of period in The New World), his thinking is simplistic and he never gets around to making a fully realized movie, and now we have proof that he just might be a phony. At the age of sixty-seven, is Malick really that naive to think that this ponderous, trite mumbo-jumbo with its celestial choirs and jerky camerawork passes for anything other than an attempt at clumsy profundity by a first-year film student who has lots of "feeling" but very little talent? It’s a big, dumb head-scratcher of a movie and you can hang any cornball interpretation you want on it and - like religion - no one can argue with you because there is really no there there. The comparisons that have been made to Kubrick's 2001 are actually observant: the prehistoric flashback, the edit that jumps millions of years, the funeral pace, the classical music to remind us how important it all is. Well, Kubrick didn't know how to wrap up his movie, either, but he took us somewhere we hadn't been before and - with subtle humor and some sharp cynicism - made us think about technology and the future and our place in it. If Malick is trying to tell us that we are all part of a cosmic miracle that we don't understand, it has been better said many times before and with more clarity and far less tedium. If he is trying to say that life is too short and we should treasure every minute, then I'd like to ask him if seeing The Tree of Life is how he would choose to spend his precious time. Is this what he wants to see when he goes to the movies?

    1. You re an idiot....if you don t get it....pity you

  18. I'm coming a bit late to the party here. I've only recently discovered the blog and I've been enjoying reading your reviews. I think you do a great job pulling out the bigger picture within the films you've reviewed. I'm driven to comment here simply because Tree of Life is such an incredibly magnetic film. I'm a filmmaker more than a critic, yet I found myself devoting a lot of space on my blog to Tree of Life after I saw it.

    What's fascinating to me, was how impactful the film was, despite having deeply significant flaws. I love Malick. I think he is one of cinema's true genius, even when adopting techniques that in other hands I would deplore. His films have to viewed more in light of poetry than pure storytelling in some ways though. i think that is why many people have issues with them. Of course art will divide people, but I think Malick can create such an emotional resonance in his work that profoundly affects people. That's what is so incredible about Tree of Life.

    At times I found it absolutely excruciating to watch. I wanted him to stop. Scenes/segments would reach natural ending points, and then keep going. This was most painful at the end where over and over it seemed like the right time to go to credits and yet he would start a new image. I was quite frustrated, wanted to stop, get up off the couch. Yet afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about the movie. The feelings lingered in profound ways.

    What is remarkable is that so many other people have had that response. I've seen no other movie where I can view forums and see person after person describing a profound emotional response to a film. I understand the people who hate it, who would turn it off. Malick made mistakes. I agree with the idea that it is not pretentious, since this was an honest work. It had the feeling of something that wasn't complete, and that seems to be the case-the studio forcing it to finish. I feel that with work there is an even more incredible movie (though I'm not sure the four hours Malick wants is the right answer).

    Simply for the fact that so many people experience such a deep reaction, this film cannot be ignored. I can't think of any other film so flawed that is so moving and magnificent. The wonderful memories sort of wash away the flaws after the fact and I find myself thinking about it often. Malick is dealing in true cinema, something that is affecting humans beyond just straightforward story and image, but achieving the cohesion of all the cinematic senses to produce something far more than the sum of its parts.

  19. I've never read a review....that made me cry; this review in combination with having seen the movie 2 times, brought me instantly to tears; what a crossover of art and critique merging into appreciation that becomes as transcendent as the movie itself. Thank you,