movie review: The Tree Of Life

Far be it for me to contradict the Cannes Film Festival jury, or some critics who saw The Tree of Life there and sang its praises to the skies, but I respectfully disagree. I would never dismiss the film out of hand—it has too many beautiful passages, conveying the conflicting emotions of childhood—but I think its reach exceeds its grasp. One can applaud Terrence Malick for attempting something as bold as a picture that ruminates on the place of mankind in nature and the history of the universe. But even an ambitious artist has to be judged on results, not intentions. I couldn’t connect the “big bang,” or the interaction of dinosaurs, with the life of a family in 1950s Texas, and frankly, I found the shots of protozoa, flowing water, and the cosmos itself to be beautiful but—

— boring.

Even if one could forgive those artsy moments as a fleeting indulgence, I thought the present-day scenes of a contemplative Sean Penn, who appears all too briefly as one of Brad Pitt’s boys grown up, were ineffectual. We are meant to feel his unease in the modern world, and relate that to his difficult upbringing, but I felt disconnected from this mostly-silent character.

The Tree of Life is truly a film in which the parts are greater than the whole. The depiction of small-town life in the mid-20th century is superb, especially as shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. We witness the emotional journey of a boy from infancy to youth, from being the sole object of his mother’s loving attention to sharing her with two brothers, and his subsequent growing pains. This involves boyhood adventures, moments of curiosity, discovery, guilt and pain—all of it vividly conveyed through the intimacy of the camera with our young protagonist (Hunter McCracken).

He also has to contend with a stern, loving, often quixotic father (Pitt), who demands a great deal but rarely (if ever) says a word to his wife, played with ethereal grace by relative screen newcomer Jessica Chastain.

It is rare to see naked emotions portrayed so vividly, especially in an American film, but the qualities captured in those moments are diluted, not enhanced, by Malick’s attempt to relate them to an earthly continuum.

If you’re a discerning and adventurous filmgoer I would encourage you to see The Tree of Life because the family story is quite moving. But you must know, going in, that you may or may not respond to the movie as a whole.


  1. Liznew says:

    Just as a follow-up to my initial comment on February 3, 2013, I always wanted to point out that when I first went to the see the movie in the theatre, I was accompanied by a dear friend who is blindf. Technology has made movies accessible (in terms of descriptive narrative) to some in the blind community who lost their vision later in life but to not those who have never had sight since birth. It broke my heart that this wonderful friend had to sit through these lovely images during the unbearable "National Georgraphic" scenes as she have no concept what it means to see a bright orange burst or a beautiful blue sky as it was described. Sadly, for all the artists making film like this, they sometimes don't realize that they are also unintentionally (I hope!) excluding members of our society. In moderation, I have no problem with beautifully scenary but it need not go on endlessly at it did in the beginning and end of the film. (Please read my first review of Feb. 3 first if you wish to respond). Thanks

  2. Liznew says:

    I think Maltin's review was exactly what I thought at the end of the movie. Though beautiful at times, the whole Nationl Georgaphic exploration became painful after the first 10 minutes. It went on endlessly and had me fidgeting, getting annoyed and irriated for having fallen for the other reviews.

    With the movie now on Demand, I caught it mid-stream, where it really begins the focus on the 1950's family and there is dialogue. I forget my anger from the prior viewing and actually found myself crying at parts and completly entranced by the grace of Jessica Chastain. Little Jack also was a favorite with the interactions with his father, played by Pitt. Pitt did fine but it seemed to be "Billy Beane" as a 1050's OCD parent – except – Pitt portrayed a wonderful dad in Moneyball. Very similiar dialecht and abrasive, dismissive personality as "Beane."

    Yet as the end approached, my frustration heightened once again, as it continued to drag and I still didn't feel connected to the messaging. Though beautiful in it's imaging, it left one begging for it to end and for some answers to the disjointed film. I may not be artsy enough and don't claim to be an expert on film, but I know a good movie. This had so much more potential. Just my opinion but good to know Maltin seems to agree.

  3. Massimo says:

    The Tree Of Life is unlike any other film out there. I must applaud Malick for having the guts and ambition to try something new, directors now a days lack creativity and/or originality. Lets be honest who hasn't seen atleast 1 or 2 films that are so similar to alexander payne's "the descendants" hmmm? One of the reasons Tree Of Life succeeds is because everyone comes away from it with their own view of what its about, only a truly gifted filmmaker could achieve that. Malick combines the images, narrative and score so well and that is something so lacking in today's day and age. Not to mention the fact that he draws out extraordinary performances from his cast. While Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken are great the true star for me was Jessica Chastain who's performance is nothing short of astonishing. She fully embodies what we would image "grace" to be. Its unfortunate "the help" is the fade of the moment, otherwise i have no doubt she would've been nominated for her work in this film. Love it or hate it most would agree that the film is the most discussed of the past year and for that reason alone Malick achieved success. In my opinion the film is a near masterpiece!

    Glad to see the academy acknowledged Malick's tremendous work with oscar nominations for director & picture they're incredibly well deserved.

  4. Telena says:

    I am not going to go all intellectual on you and try to explain how or why this film touched me. It did something to me though. I had tears rolling down my cheeks! I loved it. Maybe I am just a wierdo! However, I probably would not recommend it to everyone!

  5. Deek says:

    This was the biggest disappointment I've ever seen. Pretentious garbage. It's like film school student was given a budget and an assignment to make something weird and boring. Not one thing in this movie was genuine.

  6. MAPMAN says:

    Beautifully photographed, pretentious…crap.

  7. Brian McInnis says:

    I’ve just about had it with Maltin.

  8. Tempest says:

    Beautiful, yes, but most importantly, a superb cure for insomnia.

  9. Patrick M. Gouin says:

    Long and mostly pretentious film. Following a drama in a 50’s very white and ordinary american family, we are trusted in a transcendental realms «à la Kubrick», but without the effect and the precision of the Master. The cinematography is top notch, though. Brad Pitt, (one of the film’s producers) usually the pretty boy, shows his depth here as an actor and Sean Penn has never looked so good on film. This film tries to reach a spiritual, even religious level, but the end result is vastly disappointing. 5/10

  10. Raymund says:

    To me “Tree of Life” was less a movie but more a meditation on the miracle of LIFE. I came away contemplating the vast infinity of time and space, and truly we are just a blip in eternity. In fact, I question if the Universe is even aware of our existence. And yet here we are! We have but a brief window to experience life and ponder its mysteries. But in this one lifetime we are allowed, we laugh, we cry, we love, we hurt, we feel hunger and pain, we bleed, we fear and feel the anguish of losing a loved one. These emotions and experiences are REAL and intense for us. In fact this is all we have as proof that we have LIVED. And we yearn for a reunion with our lost loved ones, hoping beyond hope, that in this vastness, that we will find each other somehow.
    I think a lot of people are getting tripped up by their inability to “connect the dots” in the story of the O’Briens. I say, you’re trying too hard. These details don’t matter. These are fragments of memories, real or imagined, accurate or distorted by time, of a life lived. Perhaps Malick’s very own. In fact, I think the director is even inviting you to substitute YOUR OWN life instead of the O’briens so you can validate your own existence. I ask you, what do you really have of your life right NOW, but fragments of memories of the life you’ve lived. Because really, that is all we have to cling onto. And how successfully can you really connect all these “dots” in your life?
    This is what this “movie” made me feel and think about for days afterwards. No other movie I’ve seen before has done that! In fact, as soon as I got home, I gave my 1 year old nephew a big hug and really appreciated this time we have together.

  11. Donald D'Haene says:

    Maltin is dead right about this film. Certainly there are much worse (Sex & The City 2, Carole Shelley’s Frankenstein) but this film – except for 45 minutes after the National Geographic 20 minute commercial – was pure torture for the five of us who attended yesterday’s showing. The dinosaur moment had me laughing out loud. Sunflowers at the end! 1 million jump cuts! WTF? Hated it.
    TheDonaldNorth on Twitter

  12. markb says:

    If you paid attention you’d know that the little kid’s head wasn’t partly shaved but burnt from a house fire that was briefly shown in the movie.
    I have to say this movie had me until the end when we see all the people wandering around on the beach. It needed to end sooner.

  13. Rich & Vel Osborne says:

    We wish we would have read your review before spending $14.50 to see this horrible movie. It should have been a dead giveaway that the only theatre showing this film was 25 miles away from our home. (FYI: We live in the San Francisco Bay area.) You have just become our favorite movie critic !!

  14. Jason says:

    A very thoughtful review. I’ll probably wait until DVD for this one.

  15. Matt says:

    Ignoring the history of the universe, the core of what I thought was a narrative was a man intensely trying to revive his childhood memories.

    Sure there are lots of random moments in the film, but isn’t that how memories work? There’s a lot of events we remember, but cannot connect the dots, or recall it’s significance.

    For example, when the family goes to town, they see a bunch of criminals being arrested, a crowd of people shouting around them. Jack and the audience aren’t able to hear/remember what they are saying, only that the event happened. We’re only able to pick up on certain details – the way the criminals thrashed around the backseat of the squad care, or the way.

    I came prepared to this film not expecting a prominent narrative, so to me this was a film that visually explored the way the human mind is able to recall childhood memories.

  16. paolo maranini says:

    Pretentious, a failure. Sound track unbearable. much, much better to reread the Book of Job to learn something about Life.

  17. Carlo Turco says:

    Thank you indeed, Mr. Maltin. I was very unease after having seen this movie. It was impossible, for me, to get rid as it were just junk but, on the other hand, I felt deeply that as a movie it was nothing but a failed attempt. In your comment I found exactly the many reasons of my dissatisfaction I was striving to articulate.

  18. mark4009 says:

    . While I can recall leaving theaters disappointed or even scornful of a production, this is the first time I can recall having been angry as I exited. Malick’s pretentious, self-indulgent effort is an insult, an imposition upon those who rightly expect a minimum of coherence (and not necessarily linear coherence) and shape. Unlke Maltin, who has kept his equilibrium while all about him have lost theirs, I’d suggest that critics have flocked to this film as a bank shot for their own ego gratification, lauding it as a means of displaying their philosophical depth and their encyclopedic knowledge of the film maker’s personal history. Perhaps the ratings system should be amended to include “RBBA” (Read Biography Before Attending)..

  19. Brett says:

    The only reason I’m disappointed that Maltin didn’t like this film is that he’s a smart enough critic who will defend a film on the basis that its concept requires a “leap of faith”. I’ve seen him make such a leap with films that are far less ambitious than “Tree of Life” and didn’t fulfill their intention any better than this film did. It seems to me that in order for a complex film to get Maltin to make the leap, it has to catch him in the right mood at the right moment. Finally, based on the comments, it seems that Maltin isn’t the only one who took this film the wrong way. Self-indulgent? Pretentious? An insult?????!?

  20. Stanley says:

    I didn’t really get the impression that Malick was showing us Sean Penn’s unease in the modern world. I felt more this was just a snapshot of what he was thinking on the anniversary of the day his brother died. No?

    But how wonderful to have a movie this summer that encourages any interpretation at all, let alone one as beautiful as this.

  21. Brett says:

    Leonard Maltin says he didn’t respond to this film as a whole. He also found parts of it boring. This is very ironic coming from a critic who called “Meek’s Cutoff” a “deep and resonant experience”.

  22. Walt M. says:

    It’s almost pointless to “critique” Tree of Life as a movie. It is so different in structure, intention, and style from 99% of English-language movies that to put it in the same universe with Pirates of The Caribbean is just – wrong. Malick has absolutely failed at making a conventional Hollywood movie with a popcorn-munching fun storyline of cops, superheroes, aliens, vampires or fast cars. Malick succeeds in Tree Of Life with an impressive “art” film, in a category with other highly visual but ambiguous movies like “Eraserhead” and “Russian Ark” where the primary pleasure offered is to the eye. Some adults will find Tree Of Life such a refreshing antidote to Hollywood “popcorn movies” that they will say Malick’s work is the best thing ever. But “something different” does not mean it’s the best movie ever. Malick has a love-affair with beautiful cinematography going back to Days Of Heaven (1978). And it’s true that Tree Of Life has some phenomenally beautiful images. But pretty pictures do not make a great story. Is there a great story in Tree Of Life? Definitely not. Most of the story shows the cliched small-town boyhood with stern but loving father. And if there is a grander story — you, as the viewer have to make it up for yourself out of clues that are presented out-of-order, fragmentary, elusive, whispered. Some viewers like that kind of do-it-yourself movie-as-crossword puzzle, and that’s OK. But don’t confuse mystery and meditation with a good story. Some may say: “If you don’t like Tree of Life it’s because you are not smart, spiritual, or deep enough to ‘get it.’” Poppycock. That’s the same argument people make to say “Inception” is a great movie; good because of it’s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure. If you are not titillated by complicated structure you are a dope. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I’ll stick with Occam’s razor and the simplest answer being true: when filmmakers construct a maze of complexity, fragmentary narrative and unanswered questions, the most likely explanation is the director got lost along the way, randomly assembling a metaphysical shaggy dog story. Hey! — even that’s OK, but recognize this as film-as-art, with a splash of wonder and pretentiousness as well. Some will say Malick’s work is a “masterpiece of art.” But judgements like that are a lot clearer with 100 years of historical perspective. Tree Of Life is definitely not rocketing to the top of the AFI’s list of what we simple common folk understand as “great movies” like: Citizen Kane, The Godfather,Casablanca, Raging Bull, Singin’ In The Rain, Gone With The Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, or The Wizard of Oz, etc.

  23. Ralph says:

    I think Leonard Maltin is one those critics who tries to always be contrary at any movie that has an enormous amount just so he can look better than every other critic. He’s great as film historian and as moderator at film events but as critic he constantly tries to find a flaw in every movie he watches.

  24. Ryan Binaco says:

    You don’t understand the big bang section? I think you do understand but won’t allow yourself to see the story as more then just a film with 3 acts, character arcs and a packaged ended.
    The entire movies films theme can be summed up in mothers end quote where she says, and I’m paraphrasing, ” without love, the world can pass you by.”
    I believe Malick implies this theme in the grandest of gestures. The love he speaks of can be to ones family, to nature, to oneself and to ones mind and heart that “contend in all of us”.
    Using Jack as an adult, that of his childhoods fathers age, to look back over his life realizing his love for his family and where he came from. Jack remembers the good and the bad, the journey of his own soul, and finds a peace about it all. “One day we fall to our knees weeping, and we will understand it all.”
    He uses the big bang, the carnivore dinosaurs compassion, the life of man, and the solace Jack finds in the end(which can be viewed as the afterlife, or simply the mind bringing his life and those around him to one place where he can see them for what they are, his love.)
    And for me, I can only speak for me, how can you love someone, or nature, or yourself, the good and the bad unless you truly try your best to understand it. How can you love life if you have no grasp of what life is.
    He uses every scene, every shot to allow you as the audience to understand every inch of what he sees as life, and in the end he hopes you walk away with an understanding and new appreciation for those things.
    Now this is not as articulated as I would hope to be, and of course this is subjective, but still I walked away from the film knowing what I was meant to be told.

  25. Jeffrey says:

    There have been six films so far this year that I’ve seen that Maltin has not given their due. Six films that he underrates. And its not even June yet.

  26. movieirv says:

    slow, ponderous, pretentious but haunting and memorable in some ways.. i agree leonard.

  27. movierirv says:

    I agree totally with Leonard here. Malick says “connect-the-dots,” but you can’t, frustratingly so. He allows us to see little things like a shaved head on one of the kids, a death (why?), a drowning, dramatic things, then refuses to offer no explanation for them. I can accept experiemntal filmmaaking and I admire Malick’s boldness, but at the cost of defying logic and diminshing emotional power? Too many questions asked, hardly any of them answerred makes for one beautiful but exasperating film. And I love his first two efforts and admire his last to as well.

  28. Robin says:

    I think Jeffery is scary and plans to kill Leonard Maltin.
    And Gjb fails to recognize Leonard Maltin is a brilliant moderator host and provocateur. He can not be intimidated by the bitter auteur fan boys who can’t stand to see their sacred cow face honest criticism. So of course he must have wanted a few more explosions and transformers in the movie. Maltin cuts through the haze and tells it like it is whether its the latest animated extravaganza or a small independent. A true American hero.

  29. gjb4ever says:

    Methinks Leonard doesn’t “get it” when it comes to this film. Maybe he should limit his critical reviews to more conventional, linear, Hollywood movies. Leave the poetry to someone else.

  30. Mark Polak says:

    If you feel a bit like the kid who cried that the emperor has no clothes, you can count me among the grateful crowd. I caught the premiere at LACMA and had similar feelings to you. I was glad to have seen it, but was puzzled by the relevance of items like CGI dinosaurs to the story.

    I also must confess that my personal tastes run to prose over poetry. This film begs to be judged by the standards of the latter, and perhaps I’m just not wired that way.

  31. Jeffrey says:

    Leonard Maltin is a great critic, but he is dead wrong about this film.

    Dead wrong.

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