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“The Tree of Life” Is All Style and No Substance

"The Tree of Life" Is All Style and No Substance

This review was originally published May 27, 2011. It is being reposted for the DVD release.

I will come right out and say this at the risk certainty of being thought a pretentious ass who doesn’t know what he’s talking about: I am intellectually above Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Or, I’m at least philosophically and religiously above it. That is the only explanation I can have for getting so little out of it and walking away feeling nary a bit of enlightenment or passionate response. There is no way that I didn’t get it, as some of the smartest critics are even admitting to.

It’s a rather simplistic film about a man’s contemplation of his life in the context of billions of years of the universe’s existence. And the whole idea it lays out, that we are relatively insignificant yet also evolutionarily important on a grand scale is key to both its own lack of significance and its necessity — as far as it might inspire a filmmaker to make a better movie one day (we could actually use a replacement for the formerly promising Malick disciple, David Gordon Green). “The Tree of Life” is as appreciable as a life itself, but it is also as trivial and fleeting and easily forgotten.

My claiming that the film is all style and no substance is not exactly a negative criticism. Those of you who will read it that way are possibly guilty of not appreciating cinema as spectacle when it comes to more mainstream fluff. “The Tree of Life” is only superior to “The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” as far as Malick’s eye as a poetic filmmaker is concerned. Story-wise it’s not working with any smarter ideas or themes. And you can easily get from one to the other by way of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” which many are comparing to and praising above the Malick (I disagree, as I couldn’t get through more than an hour of “The Fountain” when I attempted it this week — though I’m sure it looks excellent on a big screen).

The other obvious reference point is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” which is not exactly out of nowhere since the filmmaker hired effects legend Douglas Trumbull because of his work on the sci-fi classic. I hear Malick even wanted to improve upon “2001,” but all he’s done is come off looking like a minor derivative, a la De Palma‘s relationship to Hitchcock, or what “True Romance” is to Malick’s own “Badlands” (one of my favorite films of all time, I must point out). With “The Tree of Life” we get protozoa and dinosaurs instead of prehistoric man and later, instead of the surreal material we get from Kubrick, there’s some horribly sappy heavenly beach scene that might not have seemed so cornball if it didn’t remind me so much of Clint Eastwood’s own embarrassing afterlife stuff in “Hereafter.”

“2001” was long thought of as the most expensive experimental film ever made. I don’t know how the budgets between that and this compare with inflation, but I’d rather call “The Tree of Life” the most expensive student film instead, anyway. It has more of that gaudy artiness and ambition that true experimental filmmakers thankfully lack. And I’ll be honest, I’m pretty picky when it comes to acceptance of experimental cinema and also poetry. I won’t deny that Malick has a poetic sensibility with his filmmaking. I won’t deny him his allowance for delivering what’s clearly a personal and expressive work that is exactly how he wants it. I really can only deny it’s how I want it.

What I want is just the long middle section, the part that stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents of three boys in mid-20th century Texas. The Big Bang stuff before that is pretty but overdone and not well connected. The family narrative is not only the strongest part of “The Tree of Life,” but by itself it’s some of the strongest cinema of the year. But again, there isn’t a whole lot of substance to the storytelling. It’s a choppy, episodic drama of classic Oedipal and Biblical dimensions, crafted out of mesmerizing cinematography (though a bit too much slow motion and upward pans to the sky), sharp jump-cutting and a wonderful performance by Chastain (the breakthrough star of the year, in my opinion).

The best parts are akin to the best parts of Malick’s previous film, “The New World,” those shots that evoke the sense of seeing something for the very first time. For “The New World” those shots are mostly in the discovery by the Indians of the arriving ships and later the curious, innocent explorations of Pocahontas in England, with all its relative novelties. In “The Tree of Life” we primarily get this wonderment when eldest son Jack (later played by Hunter McCrackin and Sean Penn as an 11-year-old and adult, respectively) is a baby and a toddler.

Thinking of the film through this character’s fuzzy and erratic memory allows for some fascinating considerations of our own loose recollections of childhood, which may now seem as if it’s from the beginnings of time, in terms of its haziness and meaningfulness. However, the “present” scenes with Penn somewhat ruin the value of any of that, partly because the actor is more like a prop than a character. HAL from “2001” has more emotionality, and I’m left wondering if the good parts of “The Tree of Life” are just the false memories of a robot, since that’s what Penn seems like. To reference another Kubrick film, at least one he’d conceived, Penn is like Haley Joel Osment in “A.I.,” and I think I now understand what so many people felt about the last section of that movie.

Like most critics who don’t love “The Tree of Life,” I do like much of it a lot. Still, too much of it is like watching grass grow (and then eventually get slowly fondled by Sean Penn’s hand in a moment that just seems like Malick is satirizing himself). It’s a “glorious,” “magnificent” spectacle that is worth seeing on the big screen, in 3D if available (I kid, it’s not), but not really worth thinking too much about afterward. I hope it does Malick well, though as is acknowledge in the film, the good don’t usually succeed. “The Tree of Life” isn’t great but it’s not bad, either. Not bad enough to do really well anyway. Whatever, though, because good or bad, the film is just a drop in the ocean of life and art, unless in a few thousand years a Werner Herzog type makes an example out of it for “Cave of Forgotten Dreams Part II.”

“The Tree of Life” is now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Recommended If You Like: “2001: A Space Odyssey”; “Stand By Me”; “The New World”

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lets be honest 'Tree of Life' is just an overly expensive student film.
'The Broken Circle Breakdown' ,I think is a far more engaging drama.


Because I disliked The Tree Of Life so intensely, I'm hesitant to claim to being 'intellectually', 'philosophically' or 'religiously' above it. It was simply that those aspects of my self didn't mesh with Malick's vision. I will confess though that through this film from about twenty minutes in until the end and then for sometime after, my most prolific utterance was "You've got to be fucking kidding me…" "…What did they spend on this…" "…Is Malick really distributing this wank to the public…" I truly felt that this was a private moment for Malick and one in which I didn't want to be a participant. As is often the case for me when a persons overly inflated ego intrudes into my comfort zone. I would have accepted this with less difficulty if that (ego) had been the punchline but there wasn't any humour, indeed this film took itself far too seriously for that. I enjoy intellectually, philosophically and religiously provocative films. So why didn't I connect with and enjoy this? I think it's because I was invited to think and then ridiculed for it with the spectacular but unnecessarily lengthy cut to the expansion of the universe.. if anything it just confirmed in my mind how bland the 'other story' (as in Penn's character Jack O'Brien) actually was. This explanation of our place and more directly the boy's and man's(McCracken's and penn's character) place in the universe came across as a little pompous and condescending.
The long and the short of it is, I found this movie tedious; stifling rather than stimulating and I always become frustrated and agitated when I feel as though I'm being preached at.
I guess almost all I've said has contradicted what I declared at the beginning but I still hold to it, that I don't feel superior in any way because Malick's work did have an affect on me. Not as he would have anticipated or hoped it would affect an audience perhaps but I felt emotion none the less and I appreciate that from an artist always.. and also his earnest attempt to do so for other reasons through the film..maybe…Great cinematography..But now I ask why did they spend so much…

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I rarely post on these things, but I loved this movie. No shame on you, but I don't think you "got it". I just don't think it is the kind of movie to be appreciated on an intellectual/philosophical level, despite many claims to the contrary. It resonates if you appreciate Malick's way of looking at things, rather than thinking about them. I might say I'm intellectually "above" this movie as well, but for some reason it hit a place deeper than thought. You either feel it or you don't I guess. I think I might just be a cornball at heart.


To be honest, I got a little bored with Tree of Life. I think it was great cinematography, I understood what Malick is trying to do, created, express. What I don't understand is why he can't make it more engaging. It is confusing for those who can't be bothered to think. If you can be bothered to think about these kind of things, you have already gone through all of this stuff yourself, before Malick presented it to you in a motion picture. If anything there were parts in it that did make me really think, I always say things like the mother was saying to God, and I felt this strange connection to the movie in this sense. I guess it just made me realise how we're all the same, we think the same, we know the same things, we feel the same way. It made me sick of being the same. I feel like I don't stop enough to think about why we're here and what the point of it all is. I have my faith in God and I have started letting that develop, but I still get frustrated sometimes just wondering what the hell the point is. So boring or not, as you can see… this movie has had some sort of effect on me, although, one that will most liking be over when I wake up tomorrow morning (if I wake up).


life is happy


i concur with the reaction of ‘Guest’; the film is about -daring to!- experience. it is about surrendering.
and after the experience, you come out altered – it does not end there! ofcourse not.
compare it to real life experiences:
i was present when my father passed away; this experience has altered me for ever after. the experience only lasted as long as his dying. the alteration lasts up to today.
there is nothing to ‘get’ in the movie. the only thing that can happen is: you surrender and experience or … you don’t. if you don’t, you will not like the film.


Well I loved The Fountain and consider it a masterpiece.
So I really have to wonder: what kind of film critic “can’t get through more than an hour of The Fountain”? Even if you didn’t like it, surely it was worth finishing in order to make an informed judgement?

If a film like The Fountain marks the low boundary of your film-watching tolerance though, I can only assume you also chapter-skip through most of the mainstream films released in any given year?

Or perhaps you’ll be one of those people who claims that a particular, major, artistic film that they personally didn’t like really does qualify as “the worst film I’ve ever seen!”…Thereby simply betraying a collossal naivety toward the breadth of human film-making history, and/or a sheer lack of film-watching experience.


“Intellectually above The Tree of Life” coming from the person who called the new Pirates movie “subversive” and the massive piece of shit “Hesher” a “masterpiece.”

You explain why you liked the parts you did, good job. Now explain why the movie on the whole is a middling disappointment. Don’t use totally subjective adjectives like “overdone” or “trivial” without providing examples. This is shit the 13 year old’s I teach know not to do.

Better yet, demonstrate you’ve actually engaged with the material and are attempting to glean something from it. You need not look any further than your indiewire partners at Reverseshot who’ve been doing an entire weeklong symposium on the film to see that there is a ton to grapple with here. The only trenchant insight you’re able to offer here, though, is that, no, you are not in fact watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, something that can be gleaned from the film’s credits or the title printed on your ticket stub. This is like reading Gravity’s Rainbow and complaining that you couldn’t follow the story.

It’s certainly fine if you didn’t like this film, but as a piece of film criticism, this review is complete fucking garbage. I get no sense of why this film is a facile disappointment (an opinion that is held by a good number of folks,) just the sense that some nobody on the internet didn’t totally love it.


I think the problem is that you haven’t differentiated between intellect and experience – I don’t think Malick has ever made films about philosophy or theology in an intellectual sense. It’s not about you or his characters understanding the world, but instead about how you experience it. You can know how the universe begins and ends, but how you emotionally connect to that creation and experience your place in it is an entirely different question – one that I think Malick is really after. We see a frog on a blade of grass and the feelings and conception of it are always restricted by the walls of what we think we know about the world. That’s why I think this movie is great – reactions to it tell you more about the viewer than about the movie itself. :)

Christopher Campbell

@Guest: I completely agree with you, but engaging in an experience to me is just that, experiential. Once it’s done, I have little to do with it.

@Cameron: I don’t dislike the film and never say it’s disappointing, though I could do without the ending. By “overdone” and “trivial” I mean them as not subjective. The Big Bang stuff goes on too long and is over-emphasized, its point received immediately. And the film is as trivial as the people in it, and as much as any other film. I’m glad you took time to read headlines of other posts I’ve written, but POTC4 is only subversive in a Disney context. And well, Hesher is a masterpiece of character, narrative and ideas, in my opinion. Anyway, as I say there are many things to like about Tree of Life, it’s just not that different from many other films as a whole. And that experiential stuff makes it as mindless an entertainment as most Hollywood fluff. I can’t say that’s disappointing since I enjoy a lot of that. I think people project their own desires of gradeur onto Malick, though.

@Magellan: I don’t have time to watch stuff I’m not into. I’m not into The Fountain. So sue me. I don’t know what you mean by chapter-skipping. You mean with DVDs? I don’t watch mainstream Hollywood stuff on DVD. And if I were going to skip anything I’ll just turn it off completely. The Fountain is not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. And Tree of Life is very far from it.

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