I took a chance on this film after hearing various bewildered critical responses from cinema goers and critics. At issue seemed to be the sprawling cosmic imagery, intercutting scenes of family drama, with sequences involving dinosaurs being singled out for especial derision.
Still, intrigued, I rented this, and I am incredibly glad that I did.
The film is long and sprawling, and you are put in the mind frame for the human wrestling the transcendent straightaway, with a quote from the Book of Job, the voice of God, no less;
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world..."
The film unfolds at a searching, meditative pace, but we go straight to intense human drama, with the O'Brien family receiving news of the death of a son. The action then rewinds, through the mind's eye of Sean Penn's middle aged architect reflecting on his boyhood with this family, and the character of the mother (Jessica Christian) reflecting on the twin paths of 'Grace' and 'Nature.'
The interplay between the sons and the parents in the America of their day (50's Texas) is the human drama of the film. The mother is all gentleness and grace, but with steel too. The father (an impressive Brad Pitt), authoritarian and wounded, is scarred into an oppressive attitude to his boys by what he sees as the merciless, Darwinian struggle of life.
The Sean Penn character, as a boy, grows and rebels, increasingly testing his father. There are also landmark events that further underscore the frightening side of life. The drowning of a boyhood friend is a particularly chilling and effective example of this, with the grotesque suddenness and splintering horror of it breaking in when least expected to a carefree community event.
All this is juxtaposed by the wider cosmic 'birth pangs' of the universe and the world, with fantastic images of galaxies and worlds, our world, being born. We see the growing pains of creation, cosmic collisions and explosions, experimental life, dinosaurs.
So, the human struggle is given context, but not trivialised. In fact, it is given its meaning.
The Christian imagery, spoken and implied in the film will give meaning to some. Others will find the meaning in the cycles and struggles of nature. Some both. But for me, no film has so successfully linked the human struggle with the transcendent since perhaps 2001 a Space Odyssey. This earlier film, with its explosion of cosmic imagery and the sense of an incredible 'other' gave me a lasting sense of wonder similar to this. It's fitting that both films are linked through the effects work of Doug Trumbull. If anything, this film has a greater human heart set in the realities of human life, without the distractions of homicidal supercomputers.
And the climactic vision, seen through the eyes of Sean Penn's character, is a powerful emotional and spiritual drama of reconciliation and redemption.
This is an enthralling, wonderful film. Go see.
on 6 September 2013
I have a cautious love for this film. An oddity in some ways, seeking to place the story of one family and their regrets in the context of the beginning of existence and the eventual end of the world. Majestically shot, superbly acted, but perhaps Malick could have placed the very important dialogue (of which there is not that much in the whole film) a bit higher in the mix. Subtitles helped me out here in a way that people who saw the film in the cinema weren't blessed with. With great art comes the risk of great pretentiousness and this is certainly a film that walks the tightrope between the two.Which side of the tightrope you fall off and land in will be very much about who, and how reflective you are.
on 1 April 2014
The difference between Art and Entertainment is that Art demands something of the viewer. This is a very demanding film and many have refused the demand. For those who do respond it rewards with a new narrative style, visual beauty, and profound (and challenging) theological insight into the value and cost of human life. I have shown this movie 14 times to friends and still cannot take my eyes from the screen.
Chastain glows and Pitt gives his best ever performance, achingly true,
This is a very unusual film - on the one hand, beautifully artistic and poignant; and on the other hand, displaying minimalist story-telling and limited character development. It is a very surreal movie, reminiscent of 'Love' (2011) and 'Space Odyssey' (1968) inasmuch as there's very little dialogue - and the characters do very little. It's concerned with thought, feeling and contemplation - and is intended to provoke thoughts and feelings ... At its core, the film is about two parents (played by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) who, during the 1950's and 1960's, raise their three children - in a loving but rather authoritarian manner, adhering to Christian traditions. Tragically, one of their sons dies at the age of 19. This loss is devastating, and causes enduring suffering. The movie shifts between the past and the present. And today one of their sons (played by Sean Penn) still mourns the loss. But how such tragedy is depicted is highly unconventional.
The visuals are stunning. It's as if the purpose is to design a piece of art. We see trees blowing in the winds, birds dancing in the air, clouds going past ... And as the mother whispers about her loss to God, asking why her son has been taken, the film embarks on a grand journey. We witness the cosmos in all its grandeur. We see the galaxy, full of stars and nebula. We see the early Earth, being bombarded by meteorites. Volcanoes erupting. Water flowing. And primitive life emerges ... and evolves. We see dinosaurs, and their ultimate extinction. This is the journey life has taken. And to inquire about one life in particular, its meaning and why death has occurred, is a question asked against the backdrop of life in all its radiant entirety.
This is a long film, without a definitive narrative. The plot is as minimalist as possible. It's all about the imagery and emotion. We're invited to ask existential questions. The movie does not present 'answers'. How the viewer perceives the film is up to them - as this is a subjective journey, consequent of the depression suffered by loss.
For me, I enjoyed aspects of the film. Yet, at times, I was slightly bored - and I found the film tried too hard to be clever and sophisticated. However I cannot deny that there are some amazing qualities to this movie. I suspect that it's a film that benefits from repeated viewing. It will be a film that divides audiences - with some people loving it, while others are disappointed by it. It's worth watching - just to see on which side of the divide you fall, for if you do enjoy it then it's a film that ought not to be missed.
on 6 August 2013
The Tree of Life ironically deals with the topic of death. The film tells you to turn up the sound so you can hear all the first person narration. When their son dies at the age of 19 parents cope with the loss and question their faith, but not severely question their faith that would alter their life style. After the characters are introduced, we still see Sean Penn doesn't own a comb. The film digresses into a Discovery Channel special which condenses the modern version of creation of 14.7 billion years into about 12 minutes. I felt like we had passed into the monolith.
We now start all over with the birth of the children. Hey, we already know one dies. There are things that are whispered. These are meant to be ideas or questions for God. Brad Pitt metaphorically represents the "tough love" God who prepares us for life's journey without us realizing it. Hence we have the macrocosm and microcosm in our tale. One could assume that the microcosm of our life is reflective of our theological views, we carve out a tough love God based upon our tough love "Father". At one point in the movie Brad Pitt insists his son call him "Father" and never "Dad." Having lived in the south, that is a no-no. "Father" is reserved for the heavenly Father. That is a hint of the symbolism. A sermon stresses the book of Job and asks, "Is the scheme of life a fraud?"
Not for everyone. I was very bored until I figured out what they were attempting to do. I think the beauty of the film is that different people can grasp a different meaning from it. It doesn't spell it out. My review is one take.
on 10 October 2015
The Tree of Life a mixture of dreamy reverie that Malick does so well and grim kitchen sink realism that’s never before featured in his films as far as I’m aware. I found the dreamy symbolic passages quite brilliant – as good as I’ve ever seen on film.
The other stuff, which concerns a grim family situation in 1950s Texas, was excellent in its own right. Brad Pitt was terrific as the tyrannical father and Jessica Chastain was quite gorgeous though, of course, playing the stereotypically submissive wife. The boys who played the sons were also excellent.
However, the family story was too long and drawn out and certainly if one were watching it in the cinema it would be quite an ordeal for both mind and backside. If Malick had edited this part of the film and cut about 30 minutes from it he would still have had a decent length 100 minute feature film and probably a masterpiece.
But sure there’s no talking to these genius types.
This film is nothing if not ambitious, and I suppose it deserves some credit for attempting to ask what life is all about with sincerity, and trying to place human life in the bigger scheme of things. The soundtrack is continuous and dominant, plastered over a film that is rather inflated. An opening announcement suggests you turn it up loud, presumably to override critical faculties. By trying to question God's purpose and pitching the whole enterprise at this exalted level, its imagery often falls flat, or would do if the camera stopped gliding around for a second. It conflates images of natural phenomena and the planets - breathtaking in themselves - with the story of one family in Texas, and the stylistic constraints this imposes on the domestic depiction do not work in the film's favour, although they do make it possible by trying to give an air of lightness and transience to the everyday which matches the grandest imagery, or at least doesn't jar. It is all of a piece. The Fifties sections, which take up most of the film, show 'daily life' although it's hardly recognisable as such. It is shot in a way that suggests the view from a fairground ride, but without the lights or colour - you've hardly seen something and it swoops out of the picture. It succeeds in avoiding a soap-opera feel, but the setting is pretty blank in itself. The family of three boys live in a house that seems devoid of any specific character, and lead bland lives to match - no time of day is ever really clear, no sense of a routine or any of the basic things that underpin any real life. Instead we get whispered metaphysical questions, swooping close-ups and sharp cut-aways, often over great music: Berlioz and Couperin are used quite a lot, to good effect. It is greater than the film itself, but in keeping with its themes, so some of this does rub off. Not all the music is great, however ... there are some new-agey excerpts by composers like Preisner and Gorecki which I find a bit dubious, but they do fit, in a way. The acting by the children is fine, but the three star leads - the parents and one of the sons decades later - do nothing very exceptional, and the characterisation of the Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain roles seemed like an empty space - they are just on screen, and there's not much more to it. They seem like pawns moved about amid all this camerawork and the soundtrack. The final scene on a beach is meant to be the very acme of spirituality and vision, but looks more like a Jack Vettriano painting; its religiose overtones leave you confused, it is such a mixture of obviousness and sentimentality, with a bit of Magritte thrown in and some more harking back to the 2001-style imagery. For a mystical concluding beach scene, Jonathan Glazer's Birth is so much more effective and moving than this.
A sequence where an adolescent takes an older woman's negligee and lays it flat on the bed seems copied from Malle's Le souffle au coeur, another film set in the 1950s about three brothers where the father is draconian and absent for a time ... but that is everything this film isn't. Even the unpretentious Australian film, Love in Limbo, also about three boys in the 50s, is probably better (as is the Canadian Crazy, about four brothers, set in the 70s). These films were much less noticed and seem consigned to oblivion, even though they have great appeal. I am baffled by The Tree of Life getting so many prizes - how could the jury at Cannes have found it deserving of the Palme d'Or? Malle's film was nominated for one Oscar - which it didn't even get, but then he was French ...
Well, where do you start with a Terence Malick film (particularly a recent one)? To me, he's rather like Lars von Trier (oh no, I've upset two camps now). As with many von Trier films, The Tree Of Life has some brilliant moments and is a film whose impact (and appeal?) I suspect may well grow on repeat viewings (this is true for me after two 'gos') .... and yet does it hang together enough (and, at least as importantly, engage the viewer for what is a duration pushing two and a half hours)? For me, probably not.
Of course, the film is impressive as purely a sensorial experience. Its mix of an intimate story of a Texan family, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain's Mr and Mrs O'Brien (the former a domineering 'devout businessman', the latter a (mostly)subservient 'automaton') and their young sons, and surreal story spanning the 'ages of man' give plenty of opportunity for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to display his virtuosity (though its initial efforts to 'do a 2001' are, for me, badly misjudged, and its 'Jurassic Park moments', at best, merely superfluous and gratuitous). Similarly, Malick's use of music is generally impressive, with particular favourites for me being the stunning opening bars of Mahler's 1st Symphony, followed (in short order) by some (for me, unidentified) sublime choral music.
Acting-wise, I would say Malick's film is 'solid'. For me, Pitt's performance has been over-rated (it's not a patch on his turn in The Assassination Of Jesse James, for example) and to give equal 'star billing' to Sean Penn's '10 minute cameo' is rather disingenuous. Of the adults, I found Chastain the most impressive as the stoic, put-upon wife who eventually reaches the end of her tether. The acting star, though, is undoubtedly Hunter McCracken's turn as the conflicted, confused and (eventually) defiant young (eldest) son Jack - his engaging facial expressions are (nearly) 'worth the price of admission' alone.
I found Malick's film (though overlong) to be something of a grower (hence the thought that its impact might increase on further repeat viewings) as a 'parable' around the meaning of spirituality ('The Lord gives and the Lord takes away...') and its tale of loss, regret, guilt, shame and love. And I can't help thinking that there is probably something special (maybe a 100-minute film of more intimate-scale), lurking within what is, for me, a 'flawed epic'. Other films it reminded me of (in parts), as well as 2001 and von Trier (Melancholia, in particular), were John Huston's Wiseblood and Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now (though it's not in the same league as these latter two). Malick is a film-maker whose works should always be seen and who should be congratulated for his vision and level of ambition - even if such ambition is not always (for me) realised totally successfully.
on 17 December 2013
Beautiful. I'm trying to think if there is another film-maker who has tried to use film as a simulcra of what life might be about? Perhaps Wenders?
To the naysayers I think I understand. It isn't an easy pop-corn munching movie to watch. Throw away the pop-corn.
I loved it, but it doesn't work as a family movie, but a personal one. Every trivial detail of Brad Pitt's family resonate with my own childhood.
The sequence from big bang to life is breath-taking. The sounds of life from all around you in 5.1 or 7.1 are tremendous, the audio experience is a glorious delight.
At the beginning of the movie it asks you to play the DVD loud. So I did, very loud. Regretably for many people this film only works on large screens with the very best audio fidelity, or a suitably equipped home cinema system with a large screen and excellent speakers.
Tremendous achievement Mr Malick.
Comment: I note another review mentioned the religious symbolism - but though there was some it didn't make an impact on me - the gathering at the end was an allegory, almost a deep wish that we all re-unite at the end of it all, as the 1-god-religions try so hard to make us believe - but an atheist will take away a far deeper meaning from this film because they will see more clearly the accident that is our universe.
on 6 November 2011
You have to see Tree of Life for yourself. Even then you will have to watch is 3-5 times before you can truly appreciate it.
Reviews seem to be split between unadulterated raves and savage critiques. In truth, both of these arguments are right.
Unfortunately there is an awkward sequence (from meeting Sean Penn to discovering the creation of life) that seriously derails the film and is probably responsible for a large portion of the negative reviews. While we understand a grieving mother asking God why he took her son, Penn's introduction is one note (city life has disconnected him from his true self) and too long. We then move into the 'creation of the universe' with no clear understanding why this relates to what we've just seen. More interesting voice over from either Mother or Son at this crucial junction would have provided the stimulus needed for us to undertake this journey. As it is, it is a beautiful sequence but one which feels too disconnected from the family narrative. Such a shame and so easily fixed.
If you are able to look past this mis-step, the 2nd half of the film is truly magical. Once we get stuck into the family dynamics the film finds solid footing and it features some of Malick's best work to date. He seems to understand the human condition better than any other film maker. He's also never forgotten the questions we all asked as children. Why should I be good? Is there a God? Why do we die?
While this doesn't hit the heights of Thin Red Line, it is still a bold, spiritual and life affirming film from one of life's true geniuses.
Go see it!