Review: The Tree of Life


When Terrence Malick makes a movie, it’s a big deal. He’s only made five movies since 1973, and they are always films that have something unique to say. Malick is probably the most mainstream, high-impact art film auteur in the business.

His latest, The Tree of Life, comes six years after his last movie. It has been called “a meditation on life and death” and recently won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. But that fails to ask the ask the all important question: is it any good?

Tree of Life, narratively speaking, plays it fairly loose. We learn the story of Jack (Hunter McKraken) growing up in the fifties with his mother and father (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), who both have radically different styles of parenting. While Mom tries to instill love and a sense of wonder in her children, Dad takes a more pragmatic approach, in the hopes of teaching his children how to get ahead in an unfair, unhappy world. The film occasionally jumps ahead to see older Jack (Sean Penn) looking confused and walking around places, trying to cope with the death of his brother twenty years earlier. For real. That’s what Sean Penn does for his ten minutes in the film.

This is going to be a fairly short review because, frankly, I can’t write at lengths about a movie with absolutely nothing to say. Thematically speaking, here is the message of Tree of Life: life fucking sucks, so do your best. I just saved you two and a half hours of pretentious nonsense and poorly mixed whispering voiceover. Tree of Life is a movie so assured of its own subject matter and presentation that it forgot to actually make something watchable.

So much of this film is just blatant wanking off for the sake of wanking off. The much ballyhooed creation and death of the universe sequences are only tangentially connected to the film, more of a thematic statement than any real connection to the plot. Which would be fine, if they were remotely interesting. The only feeling they elicited in me was a certain sense of awe at the visuals, followed by crippling boredom. Yes, in case you still haven’t been paying attention, dinosaurs show up. Pointlessly. 

The only thing in this film that wasn’t student film-level pretentious was the cinematography. Tree of Life may well go down as the most beautiful film of the year. I was absolutely in awe with some of the amazing sights this film provided. That’s not just the abstract, cosmic level visuals of the universe creation/destruction sequences, mind. Every frame of film is absolutely gorgeous. A lot of care and beauty went into this film, and it looks amazing for it.

The performances are decent. Most characters are cut so broadly that it would be difficult to do absolutely nothing with them. Brad Pitt plays the angry father that eventually comes to the realization that life (gasp!) isn’t fair. Jessica Chastain plays the loving mother that realizes that love (oh no!) doesn’t make everything better. Sean Penn just walks around looking concerned and confused. That’s what they pulled him out of his mansion in Haiti for. The real show is Hunter McKraken as young Jack. His journey from childish innocence to the sullen, unhappy child he becomes would be interesting to see… if the material he works with wasn’t so bland. And let’s talk about the voiceover work here. Not only is it incredibly generic, but it seems to have been recorded and mixed by a college student. When everything is super quiet, it’s unintelligible. When it’s louder, you can actually hear the background sound rise in volume behind it. That’s bad.

I can’t say a lot more about Tree of Life because the film doesn’t have much else to say. It is a pretentious, unwatchable mess, and I wish I could say better about a film Terrence Malick has been working on for his entire career. It really does pain me to say this, but if there is any justice, Tree of Life will be regarded as one of the worst films of the year. But it won’t, because it’s “artistic.”

Max Roahrig: I honestly had no idea of what to expect from Tree of Life when I walked into the theatre. The trailer was intriguing, but like everyone else, I had no idea what the heck the movie was about. After watching it, though, I’m not sure even Terrance Malick himself knew what this movie was about. Sure, it’s a “meditation of the human condition”, but it’s something we’ve seen a thousand times before. Pixar’s Up said everything Tree of Life had to say, without being a completely pretentious piece of turkey crap. Hell, even Jurassic Park had more to say than Tree of Life. And the dinosaurs were cooler in Jurassic Park. As Alex said above, the cinematography is some of the most gorgeous of the year. But great looking cine does not make for a good movie. If this were a cinematographer’s demo reel, I’d hire him on the spot. As a movie, Tree of Life is honestly one of the worst I’ve ever seen. 29 – Painful

Sam Membrino: I had a tough time mulling over Tree of Life, because part of me knew there was something there that was undeniably special. The camera literally floats through some truly spectacular scenes in remarkable fashion, but often strays during some overtly spiritual, if religiously ambiguous, sequences. Brad Pitt brings to life his most adult, and aggressive, role to date, shedding his pretty-boy looks and familiar smile for an overbearing, difficult, and occasionally abusive father who truly keeps the film from being too easy to digest. The film’s most poignant scenes involved the strained relationship between Pitt’s disgruntled father and the sons he is raising, but even strong acting can’t sort out this mess. I also loved the score, mixing brilliant concertos and swelling orchestral movements to really extract as much as possible out of the visual amalgam on screen. However, the film suffers from being too heavy-handed, despite Malick’s patient and delicate touch (I told you I had trouble with this one). Sequences take too long to develop, there is a general air of discontinuity, and one particular scene with the largely absent (but top-billed) Sean Penn seems trite. If, however, the film is merely a meditation on the Proustian way by which memories are formed and stored, the film comes out surprisingly well. How interested we are in this man’s memories, however, remain in doubt. 52 – Bad