Finally: Malick’s Tree of Life

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning Tree of Life is the story of three young brothers growing up in 1950s Texas, told in flashback from the perspective of one of the grown sons looking back on his childhood from the present day. It is also the story of the beginning of the Universe and the development of our cosmos. It is both.

Liquidy light emerges from the black. Simple-celled undulating creatures appear. Lava flows and burns. Dinosaurs emerge and interact. The boys run across the yard in 1950s Texas. A meteor crashes into the earth from space. The grownup son stares at dizzying skyscrapers. Glaciers cover the earth. Different voices whisper in voiceover. It seems they are talking to God, asking Him questions, but at other times it seems they are talking to one another. Maybe it’s the same thing. Malick puts all of this together into an emotional ongoing collage simple and grandiose at the same time, a meditation on what it means not only to be alive, but to be a part of the flow of time. It’s a bold film, ambitious in its scope, yet you can feel how personal it is in every frame. The experience of watching it verges on the profound. Hell, it is profound. Tree of Life isn’t like anything else.

The story, as it is, is relatively standard, and on the face of it you might mistake it for The Great Santini or any other son-coming-to-terms-with-cold-father film. Sean Penn plays Jack, the grown son, navigating a mirrored world of gleaming skyscrapers, filmed at every conceivable angle to give a sense of their scope and dominance. These images meld into the flashbacks of 1950s Texas, which take up the majority of the film. A father and mother Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise 3 small boys in a small clapboard house in the kind of neighborhood where boys roam through the woods in their free time, and mothers hang the washing out on the line, barefoot in their house dresses, while father waters the grass. It is a pastoral upbringing, infused with Malick’s nostalgia for lost innocence (one of his themes as a director), and yet there are dark undercurrents. The father is very stern, and sometimes rough with the boys, slapping his big hands on their wee shoulders and necks in what seems to be a loving touch but is actually a clamp keeping them in place. The mother spends much of her time in the side yard, playing with the boys, whirling them around in dizzying spins, and admiring the grass and the butterflies. She is childlike herself. She rarely speaks, but her presence is palpable and complicated.

Tree of Life is not interested in diagnosing the family’s problems, or putting a label on the relationships. It’s not a family therapy session. How could it be when a prosaic moment of weeding the garden is followed by an image of a vast unpeopled prehistoric landscape belching with active volcanoes? When the father is home, the boys sit at the dinner table, hunched over, trying to answer his questions in the right way, but never really understanding what sets him off. We learn, eventually, in the languid time-flow of the film, that the father is disappointed by life. He holds “27 patents” for machines he has invented, but no one will recognize or reward his genius. He is angry at the rich neighbors, they make him feel inadequate. He plays the piano at home, passionately, lost in the music, and tries to teach the boys to hear what he hears in Toscanini, pointing out what they should be listening for. They don’t get it. They’re too afraid of him. He reveals to his son his old dream of being a concert pianist. We put him together in our minds, in the same way the boys do. He is rather frightening, not because he’s violent or abusive. He is frightening because he withholds tenderness. When he goes away on a business trip, mother and sons tear through the house, screaming and laughing, chasing each other, exhilarated that the somber force who rules over them is absent.

The Texas scenes are filmed in a way that feel like memories. They are not presented literally or linearly. We get glimpses, fragments, we see the same images repeating, repeating, yet each time they appear they have a deeper resonance. It is as though repetition grounds the memory in the consciousness, as though the grownup Sean Penn continuously goes back to the same things in his mind, the same childhood fragments: his mother whirling in the side yard, her bare feet with blades of grass stuck on them, the arc of water from the sprinkler, the crunch of grass in the yard, as though the accumulation of sensory details can help him receive the whole picture of childhood, of his life. I thought of Proust more than once, and how his Remembrance of Things Past evokes layers and layers of memories through one sensory detail, a scent, a sound of music, images and fragments rising to the surface and submerging again in the blink of an eye. But the entire universe is in such images. Life is not plot. Life is images, fragments, scents, light, feel. Malick’s camera catches the three boys’ unselfconscious behavior. He hasn’t made a film featuring children before, not like this. There’s one tiny (funny) cliffhanger when the oldest boy tries to scoop a piece of meatloaf onto his knife without using his finger to push it on, under the watchful eye of his father. Small moments of behavior take on enormous importance, and often, these are the small memories that stick with us forever.

The universe-creation montages are spectacular and odd, with breathtaking images carrying a strange familiarity (haven’t we all imagined what the beginning of the universe must have been like?). Our first image in the film is of blackness with a puddle of liquidy golden light starting to flow and swirl, intensifying. “God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.” There is something Biblical about the progression of events, suggesting that there is a force out there guiding everything, the same force creating the bond of the family, the same force everyone whispers to, in supplication and pleading.

Malick’s constantly undulating collage of images (I don’t think there’s one stationary shot in the whole film) has a cumulative effect. The rhythm of the film is insistent. The cuts create a juxtaposition of specific images and are not meant to ratchet up the tension or keep the audience on edge. It’s a neverending flow. You must succumb to it or you will be lost. With Malick, the power is not in what he shows us, but how it is put together, why one image is chosen to follow another. We are used to a certain kind of conventional pacing and shot progression. Long shot, medium, closeup, end-scene. None of that is in evidence here, not surprising considering Malick’s history as an artist, having created such visually arresting films as Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and New World.

There is a fascinating moment in Tree of Life which has received a lot of chatter. The moment occurs between two dinosaurs on a riverbank. One lies injured, its body heaving up and down with painful breaths. Another dinosaur appears out of the woods and its body language changes when it sees the injured creature. We have been trained by Land of the Lost and Jurassic Park to think of nature as being only red in tooth and claw so I waited for the slaughter. Instead, the predator dinosaur hops across the river and stares down at the injured dinosaur. It puts its clawed foot out, and rests it on the fallen dinosaur for a moment. Instead of attacking, it then hops down the river, leaving the injured dinosaur by itself. Malick, as was seen most clearly in The New World but is evidenced in most of his films, has a longing for innocence, a romantic yearning for a time before civilization came along and messed everything up. It’s a strictly Rousseau-ian view, and not one I share. However, it is a compelling fantasy, and one that obviously drives Malick, obsesses him. Nature as a benign force, every tree, every blade of grass, every ray of sunshine, whispering the voice of God.

Grace is a difficult concept to put into words. There is grace in the divine or religious sense, but there is also grace in the physical sense, as in the movements of ballerinas or stallions. Grace is present in the silent feelings between people, the ties binding us to each other, however painful or unresolved. Love is transcendent, or at least it can be, and loving another person provides for the possibility of compassion and empathy, one of the ways the human race distinguishes itself. I thought of all this as I watched the violent creation of the universe, billions of years before any of us showed up. If I had to define grace, I would say grace is those moments, oh, so brief, when a sensation flows into me, and something in me – or outside of me – says: “This. Here. Right now. Is perfect.” But that’s not really a definition, is it? This is the problem with – and the beauty of – grace.

Tree of Life isn’t about grace so much as it is a representation of it.

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14 Responses to Finally: Malick’s Tree of Life

  1. Kathy says:

    Really? That good?

  2. sheila says:

    Not sure why you would be surprised by that.

  3. Kathy says:

    I’m not questioning your judgment, Sheila. I’ve just seen so many different reviews and they seem to be all over the board. Just wondering what to think about it, I guess.

    Sorry if I offended.

  4. sheila says:

    No, I didn’t think you were questioning my judgment! I was just surprised that you seemed surprised that a review was positive. But from my side of the fence, or neck of the woods, what have you, the buzz was so deafening before it even opened at Cannes that I had to avoid Twitter to avoid first responses – (and when the trailer was first launched last year? Forget about it – people reviewed the trailer as though it was the full film) and many the reviews I’ve seen (all of which I read after I wrote my own) are … well, it’s hard to describe, just like the movie is hard to describe. People are positive, people are baffled, people are annoyed – but one of the things that is happening is that people are actually grappling with what is on the screen – as opposed to babbling about the plot, and the acting, etc. The film demands some kind of response. So there’s Andrew O’Hehir calling it “gorgeous and crazy” – and each review reads like a philisophical treatise, a blueprint for where the critic is coming from – and how often does a movie do that?

    There’s also AO Scott in The Times, Ed Gonzales at Slant Keith Uhlich (in Reverse Shot), Dan Callahan at HND, Matt Zoller Seitz everywhere – Jonathan Rosenbaum said that Malick doesn’t have fans, he has “disciples” and I suppose that is true. When a man has only made 6 movies in between 1969 and now – with a TWENTY YEAR gap between two of the movies – you know that something else is going on with this guy, something un-corporate, un-managed – and that, I think, should ALWAYS be taken seriously. In a world where a piece of garbage like Inception is thought of as a “serious” or “deep” movie – or Dark Knight is taken as “dark” and “serious”, a film like Tree of Life which actually contemplates the meaning of life – in a serious and visually interesting way – it’s a breath of fresh air to someone like myself. He is a personal filmmaker, who does what he wants, when he wants. Tree of Life is, as I said, BOLD – you can’t believe not only that he gets away with it (which he mostly does) – but that he decided to do it at all.

    He’s OUT THERE. Good. Artists should be more out there.

    Badlands is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I drown in the beauty of Days of Heaven every time I see it, and The Thin Red Line is a strange Zen contemplation of war and innocence, and The New World really tries to imagine life in the Americas before the white man got here … all in ways that are not literal, or linear – and in each case, Malick follows his own vision. In that way, he feels much more European to me than American (and that’s a great compliment.)

    But no, I’m not offended – just wasn’t sure why you seemed surprised to hear a good review.

  5. sheila says:

    Oh and Lou Lumenick has a really good piece in the NY Post about the film, too. Reading about it has been almost as much fun as anticipating seeing it, and then actually seeing it.

  6. DBW says:

    I very much want to read your review, but I’m so excited to see the film(not something that happens to me that often), that I don’t want to read anything before I see it myself. Of course, that didn’t stop me from reading the comments, and I’m even more excited to see it now that I know you really liked it. I think Malick is a serious man, and takes his art seriously. I haven’t loved all of his movies, but I have appreciated them.

  7. sheila says:

    Yeah, I think we talked a bit about Days of Heaven when I posted on that, right, DBW?

    I will be VERY interested to hear what you think. I found it really emotional at times – so much so that I would even say it started to go into truly profound territory (the film has to do with fathers …. enough said, perhaps?) – and it’s a bold bold film. Not at ALL commercial. (But that shouldn’t be shocking, considering his record). I think it’s more accessible than Days of Heaven – which can be almost overwhelming, in terms of the beauty of the images – it’s almost disorienting, a film that beautiful – know what I mean?

    Malick has been dreaming about making Tree of Life for 30 years. Hard to believe. I love him for it.

    I’m still mainly a Badlands-girl, but Tree of Life packs a huge punch – in its own way – it plays by its own rules – and I am thrilled that Malick already has another one in the pipeline.

    Come back here to talk about it with me whenever you get to see it! I have no idea when it’s getting a wide release in the US.

  8. sheila says:

    There’s also a pretty explicit and personal religious aspect to Tree of Life – which may turn some people off. But funnily enough, it’ll also piss the rigid literal Christians off due to its, you know, acceptance that the world is billions of years old and not just 6,000 like the Good Book says. Typical Malick – not playing to the cheap seats. It’s like James Joyce saying he was sick and tired of working on Finnegans Wake but it’s “the only book I seem to be able to work on at present, blast it”. THAT’S a personal artist, who follows his star. Malick seems to be like that.

    Religion/faith/God seem to be very personal to him – existing far outside language – I mean, you can see it in how he films nature, in my opinion – although I could be just projecting: He is for the most part silent about why he films what he does, and what his interests are. It’s all speculation on the part of his fans.

    But that’s another thing I love about him: he leaves huge amounts of room in his movies for his audiences to muck around, talk, argue, complain, conjecture ….

    He doesn’t need to tie everything up for us. He couldn’t tie everything up in a neat bow if he TRIED.

    But it’s a pretty serious religious film, I would say. Not just spiritual, but explicitly religious. And yet somehow it dodges labels as well.

  9. Not a fan says:

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

    If you aspire to be a professional critic, I think you are going to need a genuinely thicker skin—and a more cogent argument–when not everyone sees the genius in your perceptions of genius. I know it’s mean, Sheila, 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 cliché, 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 you 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 you seem to take attacks on the film as personal attacks on you, 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 you or Jake 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 dismissing people who disagree with them as ridiculous. It’s also good form to cite opposing views, as the NYT did in, instead of posting things like, “I am iMPERVIOUS to being shamed about my own TASTE” or “best response is ‘I like what I like.” Really?

    Duly noted, another of your tweets: “I had to do a Stalinist purge on my own site. Hahaha. To get rid of all of those people. They added NOTHING.” Knock yourself out. Good luck with your future endeavors.

  10. sheila says:

    // I honestly feel that people who write things like “writing about the movie was like opening a vein,” are not awfully worth talking to. //

    Then why are you talking to me?

  11. Not a fan says:

    Never mind – your awesomeness is clearly wasted on me. Have a nice life.

  12. PaulH says:

    Now listen young lady. I think that it is DISGRACEFUL the way you and your cohorts have mocked that young person for DARING to point out that you have given your OPINION on a MOVIE that you have SEEN.

    It is simply BEYOND the pale that a person such as your self, WITH A BRAIN, forms an opinion ON a movie and does not AGREE with OTHER people’s views. WHAT IS THIS? North Dakota?

    THERE you are with your DINOSAURS and YOUR opinions and you think that THIS is not PRETENTIOUS????????


    Are you SERIOUSLY suggesting that the so called Tree OF Life is a movie?  I haven’t seen it myself but I am sure that it is filled with things like moving pictures of PLACES and EARS. But why dinosaurs? Answer me that? You can’t can you. WHY DINOSAURS!!!!!!???!!??!?!?!?!?

    I have seen movies with Dinosaurs and they have Doug Mclure in them. WHERE IS DOUG MCLURE??? Not so arrogant now are you?

    You have your OPINION on things and you impose that opinion on people who choose to READ your SITE. And you call your self a movie critic but all you do is tell us what you think of the MOVIE? What is the point of that. If I wanted to know about the MOVIE I would go and see it now wouldn’t I???%%$£????? I wouldn’t read opinions THAT I don’t agree with. Mocking me with your views on things. And sharing with other people. DID Princess Diana die in vain??

    Now this movie “is” by an AMERICAN. And your article with your OPINIONS and DINOSAURS might be read by FRENCH people and they might think that AMERICAN movies have more than boobs and explosions. WEL L THAT’S WRONG. Boobs and EXPLOSIONS are the greatest thing about American movies and I should know. Call yourself an American and a Patriot and a Congressman do you with your VIEWS on Boobs and Explosions and Dinosaurs. IF NOTHING IS PRETENTIOUS ITS NOT THAT. Writing for money? Do you know what that makes you???? It makes you a professional writer!!!!!!! Did we defeat the CANADIANS for Nothing????

    I have HAD MY say and you can sit there smugly on your Twitters with the Internet and people dinosaurs. But I am not talking to you and I will report this to the INTERNET and they will be cross with you.

    Now, I feel in need of a lie down. Dinosaurs!

    Edna B Knucklehead (retired)

  13. sheila says:

    // DARING to point out that you have given your OPINION on a MOVIE that you have SEEN. //



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