Tree Of Life:
Full Of Life?

Tree of Life is one of the most problematic films I've seen in recent days. It's also a difficult one to review: Amazing performances, a compelling story and visuals that will blow your mind, warring with abstract meanings, confusing plot lines and an ambiguous ending.

So, how many of you are mad at me now? In all the years I've been reporting on films, this one has to be the most divisive. Just mention the name Tree of Life to anyone who's seen it and an argument will ensue -- at least a very heated discussion. No one is wishy-washy about this film. And to be fair, there is every reason to argue both sides.

Tree of Life star Brad Pitt

I'll come right out and say it. Though I thought it was some of the most beautiful imagery I've ever seen on screen, this was not the film for me. While I get what director Terrence Malick (whose work I usually love) was doing, it felt overdone and frankly very self-indulgent -- student film self-indulgent. I've described this to friends as watching the most attractive person you've ever seen in your life tell the most boring, drawn-out story you've ever heard. It made me want to grab Malick by the shoulders and yell, "Focus!"

On the other side of this, there is certainly no one way to make movies, and who am I to say that he shouldn't make a film in any way he wants? There is absolutely a place for films like this, and I'm not at all against a director's right to tell whatever story he or she wants in whatever way suits them. All I'm saying here is that I felt like someone's grandfather had cornered me in a room. He told me a story that was probably really fascinating, but the mind-wandering, tangent-filled way in which he told it left me squirming and looking longingly at the door.

I guess this is a good time to explain what's happening in Tree of Life. I'll at least give it a shot. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt are the parents of three boys in Texas in the '50s. She finds out that one son is dead. Then we go into a long, beautiful reenactment of creation, complete with shimmering lights and dinosaurs, who I believe were doing something symbolic. Then we do an entire movie about the childhood of these boys, focusing on Sean Penn (Jack) as a child (played by Hunter McCracken) and his mommy and daddy issues. I don't mean that to sound flippant. It's a beautiful story.

Then we end up in older Jack's world (we've seen him wandering in through the desert in a business suit sporadically throughout the film) and on a beach, which may be heaven and may be a hallucination. It was lovely. It was poetic. And it was boring. Yes. Boring. Meaningful, but very, very tedious, like a stoner emoting for far too long. Lots of metaphors here, I know, but it's really the only way to describe that sense of, ''I know I should like this more than I do.''

Am I waffling here? Yes, and that is not something I normally do in film reviews. It's because what was wonderful was so very, very wonderful. The creation imagery was glorious. I would have watched it all on its own. Or, if we had seen Jessica Chastain find out about losing her son and then wander into the woods, only to relive creation... the end, that would have been fine. Death does bring out that sense of terror and wonder and make us feel like we're part of something bigger. But then it goes into a beautiful film about growing up in Texas in the '50s and family dynamics. That's also a good film. So was the strange, trippy one with Sean Penn. But they were three separate films, meandering all over the place. The performances were brilliant across the board, and I'd be surprised if Jessica Chastain isn't nominated for a slew of awards, but... and here it is... someone needed to edit the hell out of this thing.

So, should you see it? Yes. This is going to be one of the most talked about films for some time. You might as well take part in the arguments.

Tree of Life review

Out of five stars...


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Comments on "Tree of Life movie review"

Jamie February 11, 2013 | 3:48 PM

I had no way to evaluate this movie than to eventually ask myself "If they had thrown in ANY thing else imaginable into this movie, could I be any more confused?" And the answer was "no". You can speculate forever about what is going on in a movie like this, but there is just no way to find a stable answer that fits the whole thing. I think Jenna's idea of several movies was as close as you can get, even though there was no plot in any of them. "Self indulgent to an extreme" would be the most accurate description.

Celine December 18, 2012 | 12:16 AM

This movie maybe has a good meaning about life.. But the way it presented soooooooooo boring.

Valerie October 27, 2012 | 9:46 AM

Irecently watched The Tree of Life. Throughout the movie, Sean Penn’s character was quite morose; he’d been an unhappy child and an unhappy adult. The entire movie was really a visualization of his thoughts; his attempt to make sense of life. He chewed over painful things that had happened to him and painful things he had done to others. At the very end of the movie, though, there is kind of an epiphany for him. There is a dream-like sequence where he sees every person he has had contact with in his life – those people who had a negative impact upon him and a positive, as well. For the first time in the movie, he smiles – it wasn’t all bad. He is who he is because of the interrelatedness of every person he has known, and through the interconnectedness of everything throughout time and space – he gets it! The Net of Indra.

frank March 14, 2012 | 4:09 AM

the movie sucked.

Zach January 15, 2012 | 12:26 AM

This film portrays so accurately the sadness and beauty of human existence, and allows us to reflect that we are infinitesimal creatures living amongst mind-blowing miracles. The dynamism between grace (Jessica Chastain) and nature (Brad Pitt) reflects the human struggle that one faces when living amongst the two. The fact that the brother has died shows us the fragility of our existence while still conveying that regardless of this fragility, life goes on, and is made beautiful because it can be taken so quickly. Jessica Chastain gives birth to her children, and in doing so also gives them death. She copes with the child’s death by saying, "I give him to you" which shows that the child isn’t really dead because it was her act of creation. The other brother copes with the death of his sibling by remembering his deceased brother, and by remembering him allows him not to die, but to live on. This film also focuses a lot on creation, and how creation is a mix between grace and nature. Through grace and nature we get an evolving story line that strikes upon the fundamental chords of what it means to be human. Tree of life allows us to see the thread that we are in the fabric of the universe.

Bela January 02, 2012 | 7:00 AM

Everything you have said is dead on. I am grateful that upon looking up anything on this film I just watched I was met with a rational review which expressed my thoughts completely. I will now no longer allow it to take up any more of my time as it dragged on long enough already. Geez! I don't feel any 'reaching deep' or 'asking questions' is necessary which is likely the problem with the film for me. The only question that came up (several times over) was "Is it over YET?"

Mr. Kelly November 23, 2011 | 11:21 AM

I also made the mistake of renting it without reviewing it. I compare this to buying your dream car because it was pretty, foregoing the test drive. Watching this movie was like hearing the dream car's brakes grinding, metal-to-metal for 2 hours 18 minutes. I've already studied science so I don't need a movie to attempt to explain the origins of life. Darwin's book did just fine. As to the actual plot (all 30 minutes of it), no one finds the mundane, everyday activities of children entertaining; except for maybe, children. How do films like this make to the theater?

Justin L November 17, 2011 | 10:48 PM

I agree with you. This movie was all over the place. It was very thematic and boring as hell. I felt like l was watching a stage production. I came up with a good metaphor i think. Its like a picture on a wall that has a very paneramic, glorious view but then in the image there are just scattered items. No one knows why they are there or who put them there. They make no sense being in the picture. BUT scince its ART someone had to paint it. In film we get "tree of life"

michael November 16, 2011 | 7:47 PM

great review and comments except for Terrence Malick portraying himself as Geri :) an artsy movie that is very confusing and leaves a lot of loose ends..

rcanz November 10, 2011 | 8:26 PM

Ummmmm. Warped episode of leave it to beaver with unexplained scenes from a nova episode. Wasn't worth the time I spent at the redbox trying to find a movie to watch.

Iva November 09, 2011 | 4:08 PM

This movie was absolutely disturbing and extremely confusing along with boring boring boring..a great slide show of nature...however the storyline was like this...what the heck is this movie about? I still don't get it??? Bits & pieces about ???? I gave 2 hrs into this when i should have just ejected this twisted film!!

Petra September 23, 2011 | 9:10 PM

the family story is not so disconnected... in the little brother trying to convince the younger one that he can trust him (bb gun and light socket) I see myself questioning faith. can I trust what hurts me, could me hurt me again? do I love anyway? and many many gorgeous images... particularly the faces and expressions. though quite a lot of it. too much maybe. did it become impossible to edit? seemed some parts had more edits and then abandoned... chaotic. again the point keeps being made. also really boring at times... so I got some paper and a pen and wrote. not many movies inspire me to do that... thanks

Pat September 01, 2011 | 8:38 PM

Amazing film. Be patient and expect to have to give this film the thought it seeks from you.

Guilherme August 22, 2011 | 7:30 AM

I considered the movie as an interesting attempt to go beyond the usual US childlike movies. It brings some reflections, the images are great. But it is too slow and too full of christian bull. The best thing was the sentence from the kid: "if god is not good, why should I be good?"

lilaac July 09, 2011 | 2:41 PM

I wanted to like it. I knew it would be good...all before I went. I left 3/4 way through and today I am going back to see it again, this time all the way through. It was difficult to hear the whispering, difficult to sit through, tedius, spectacular in scope. I have been thinking about it all day. Profound on the impact of my life. Such simple way of getting through to the essence of who God is. Yes, he creates and runs a complex universe down to the tinyest thing and most intimate of our lives. For me...this is impact on me of the movie. Very challenging for a run around run around in circles kind of life.

John Wan June 18, 2011 | 9:28 PM

Most accurate review on the Internet of this flick. I made the mistake of not reading reviews before seeing this. I can only describe the movie as a hack job.

Geri June 15, 2011 | 6:30 AM

Tree of Life is a zoom-in-zoom-out reflection of existence. The film is a journey, zooming in to intimate childhood impressions and the spectrum of human emotions, and zooming out to the relentless human attempt to comprehend, or even simply imagine the greater picture of the universe, to which our life runs parallel. The organic human family unit is the natural carrier of the pure joy which springs from creation - inevitably accompanied by the haunting pain at the loss of that creation. This film portrays the cohesion, or lack there of, of a harsh, distant, unknowable universe and the experience of that universe by ordinary people. I don't understand what is so alarming about a film without a conventional plot. In real life, there are no conventional plots. What is the plot of your life? Life is full of fuzzy impressions and dear and bizarre memories which matter and shape who we are without necessarily fitting a "and then this happened" pattern. There is nothing wrong with making films which reflect that. On that note, I strongly disagree that this film is pretentious. Is it pretending to portray the elusive relationship between people and the universe? No, it does portray that relationship. Is it pretending to show how small and confused people are when faced with big questions pertaining to their own purpose and existence? No, it does show that confusion. Is it preachy? No, it isn't. I wish we were more capable of admitting when we don't get something, especially when it's acclaimed as a success. Dancer in the Dark - I don't get it. No Country for Old Men - I don't get it. See, it's not that hard!

WOJTEK. A. June 13, 2011 | 8:36 AM

One of the bast american movies I ever seen since 60-ties Kubrick's movie "SPACE ODYSSEY". Ten film jest nad wyraz filmowy, bardzo malarski i jeszcze raz baaardzo filmowy!

don June 06, 2011 | 10:43 AM

The movie had a strange to no dialog for 20 minutes, mumbling words to God (most of which I could not clearly understand), death of one child (which one I could not figure out), and digression back to the beginning of time - creation of the world, life, dinosaurs, etc. What??? I must admit that I enjoyed the idyllic presentation of life in the 50s, but again, limited dialog. Does Sean Penn have more than 3 lines? I wonder just what point the move was trying to convey. Maybe that was the point? Just did not work for me.

michael June 01, 2011 | 8:51 PM

For some reason the film makes me think of Mark Rothko. You walk into the gallery and see a Rothko and you either fall in or you walk out. I fell into Tree of Life and whatever arguments that can be made, it, to me, transcends the normal thumbs up thumbs down reviewing. It's a painting, a huge one at that and revives the true use of the word, Awesome

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