99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

“If the cosmic astronaut god-baby at the end of ‘2001’ could come back to Earth and make a movie? It would pretty much be ‘Tree of Life.'”–Film critic Andrew O’Hehir after the Cannes screening of Tree of Life (via Twitter)

“If you didn’t care for Tree of Life then genetically you are not a human being.”– (via Twitter)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick

FEATURING: , Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain,

PLOT:  A couple learns about the death of one of their three sons.  Then, a flashback covers events from the birth of the universe to the birth of the couple’s first son, Jack.  A series of impressionistic scenes show Jack growing up in a small Texas town, afraid of the stern father who wants to toughen him up to face life’s trials.

Still from The Tree of Life (2011)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Tree of Life may be a partial reworking of Q, a discarded Malick script from the 1970s, which was said to involve “a Minotaur, sleeping in the water, and he dreams about the evolution of the universe…
  • Producer Grant Hill recalls that when he first saw Terrence Malick’s original script for The Tree of Life, it was “a long document that included photographs, bits of material from his research, paintings, references to pieces of music.  It was like something I’d never seen or even heard of before.”
  • Special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982).  He came out of retirement to work on this film at Malick’s request.
  • Won the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2011 and was voted “best film” in Sight & Sound‘s 2011 poll.
  • After some theatergoers asked for their money back after screenings of the movie, the Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut put up a poster reading, in part: “We would like to remind patrons that THE TREE OF LIFE is a uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director.  It does not follow a traditional linear narrative approach to storytelling. We encourage patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it, and for those electing to attend, please go in with an opened mind and know that the Avon has a NO-REFUND policy once you have purchased a ticket to see one of our films.”
  • A shorter version of the film, featuring expanded versions of the birth of the universe sequences, is planned for a separate release as an IMAX documentary at a later date.
  • Our original July 5, 2011 review rated The Tree of Life a “Must See,” but demurred that the film was not quite weird enough to merit a place on the List.  Readers disagreed, and in the 2nd Reader’s Choice Poll they voted Malick’s masterpiece be promoted to a List Candidate.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Thanks to its cosmic visuals, The Tree of Life is compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey more often than any other movie.  That should tip you off that selecting a single indelible image is no easy task.  I could cheat and include the entire twenty minute birth of the universe montage.  I could select my personal favorite image: the child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom who swims out the window to be born as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine.  But I believe we will be forced to anoint the “gracious dinosaur” scene as the film’s most unforgettable gambit.  It’s Malick’s “chaos reigns” moment, the juncture at which you either get out of your seat and leave the theater, or experience your first weirdgasm of the evening.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Sometimes, when you spend your cinematic time immersed in the surrealistic worlds of and , it’s easy to forget how uncompromisingly radical and bizarre a film like The Tree of Life appears to someone whose idea of an “out there” movie is of Cowboys and Aliens. In our initial assessment of Malick’s grandiose God picture, we concluded that “surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as ‘poetic’ rather than ‘weird’” while acknowledging that “[a]ny movie that tells the story of a suburban Texas boy’s troubled relationship with his father—but uses a dramatic encounter between dinosaurs to illustrate its main point—is at least making a nod towards the bizarre.” In the months since that initial review, however, The Tree of Life‘s empyrean strangeness has continued to impress us as 2011’s best weird work. The clincher came when co-star Sean Penn complained to the French press, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” That’s all the endorsement we need: when a movie is too weird for its own Hollywood stars, we have to accept that it’s just weird enough for us.


Original trailer for The Tree of Life

COMMENTS: A boy’s tempestuous relationship with Brad the Father is used as a metaphor for nothing less than the turmoil between man and his Maker in Terrence Malick’s moon shot of a movie. Told mostly as a series of hazy, dreamlike domestic memories, Tree‘s primary mission is to explore Jack O’Brien’s tempestuous relationship with his domineering father (significantly, Brad Pitt’s character is only referred to in the film as “Mr.” O’Brien).  Scenes of young Jack frolicking in the spray of a DDT truck with his two brothers alternate with memories of his father trying to teach the boy to fight by popping pop in the face, and these may be followed by a shot of Sean Penn as grown-up Jack wandering in a desert dressed in a three-piece suit.  Confusing things further, Jack’s reminiscences frequently drift into childhood fantasies: an ominous tall man stoops in a chapel-shaped attic.  When the boy first encounters the facts of death, he imagines his mother as Snow White encased in a glass coffin in the forest.  His own birth is depicted as a child swimming out of a flooded bedroom.  And the movie takes time out not only for these flights of fancy, but also to visit the birth of the universe and the afterlife.

The Tree of Life branches in many directions, but there’s always a method to Malick’s madness.  The film begins with a quote from the Book of Job: God’s terse, non-responsive reply to Job’s complaints about his ill-treatment at the hands of his Maker: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  After laying out the film’s main thesis, that “there are two ways through life—the way of nature, and the way of grace”, Malick gives Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien a good reason to complain to God: he kills their child, Jack’s brother.  After scenes of the grown-up Jack looking melancholy and lost (which are peppered throughout the entire movie), the story returns to the aftermath of that devastating death as mother Jessica Chastain asks , “Lord, why?  Where were you?”  In the most audacious cinematic answer imaginable, Malick then literally shows us the laying of the foundations of the earth: the formation of nebulae, the birth of stars, molten lava boiling, all merging into visions of the dance of cellular mitosis as the Tree of Life begins to form, a twenty minute bravura sequence ending in Jack’s birth.  As is the rest of the narrative, the scenes of life’s gestation and birth are accompanied by the heavenly choral and symphonic sacred music of Bach, Taverner, Smetana, Mahler, and a host of others; history’s most glorious music written by man to express his wonder at creation.  It is impossible not to be awed by the splendor of the universe Malick lays out before us, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by his brashness in recreating the cosmos for our benefit.

These events occupy the first third of the film, which then settles down into relative normality–considering it features the occasional unexplained shot of an ethereal Chastain floating in midair.  A central conflict soon emerges between headstrong Jack and stern disciplinarian Mr. O’Brien, who insists his son always address him as “father,” forbidding the overly familiar “daddy.”  As a boy’s mischief—tying a frog to a rocket, throwing stones through windows—develops into a dim childish awareness of sin, Brad Pitt’s Father becomes increasingly harsh towards the boy.  Family dinners turn into uncomfortable trials for the three sons, who sit in silence and answer tersely, afraid of accidentally saying something their father will perceive as disrespectful.  When Mr. O’Brien takes a business trip and is out of town for a week, it’s a holiday for the children, who spend the days blissfully romping through their Texas house with mom Chastain, playfully spraying her with a hose.  She is the embodiment of parental love, the counterbalance to Pitt’s implacable fatherly discipline.

With its “two ways through life” slogan, Tree explicitly posits Mother Chastain as the representative of Grace (love), and Father Pitt as the image of Nature (meaning, the struggle, the need to fight one’s way through life).  Pitt tells Jack, “if you want to succeed, you can’t be too good!” and “it takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.”  He teaches him to work hard, and to fight, and he’s disappointed when Jack can’t bring himself to punch Father in the face.  But his fatherly love for Jack is clear, and Jack returns that affection, if only reluctantly.  Pitt’s turn as Mr. O’Brien is the film’s preeminent performance.  Hunter McCracken does well enough as young Jack, but not much is asked of him in the acting department; Chastain is an angelic presence, but her character is one-dimensional.  Sean Penn isn’t onscreen enough, and has too little dialogue, to make a terrific impression.  Pitt is really the only complex, fully rounded character in the film, and the most fascinating both by default and by design.  He exudes toughness, but it’s tough love; his hardness stems from personal bitterness and disappointment, and from his desire for better for his children.  A talented pianist with a love for Brahms, O’Brien forsook music for a career as an engineer, and always regretted it.  He patented numerous inventions but never cashed in on them, and he envies his rich, successful neighbors bitterly.  He nearly saved a neighbor boy from drowning, but ultimately couldn’t resuscitate the lad.   As formal and authoritarian as he may be, O’Brien’s good motives and good heart are never in doubt, and Pitt makes him into a sympathetic figure instead of a mere tyrant.

The fullness of Mr. O’Brien’s character and characterization belies a simplistic Chastain=grace=good, Pitt=nature=bad equation, suggesting a second layer of Christian symbolism.  Much as the characters in Tree of Life protest to God, whose ultimate plan they can’t understand, foolish young Jack complains about his Father, not understanding that the trials Pitt puts him through are meant to make him grow as a man.  This vision fits with the traditional Old Testament image of God the Father as the loving disciplinarian, and mirrors the Job story that begins the movie (and which recurs halfway through in a sermon by the town priest on the arbitrariness of earthly justice).   In this view, Chastain’s loving mother is a feminine Christ figure, the intercessor between the judgmental Father and sinful man.  And this typology helps explain why, though we are put in young Jack’s shoes, we don’t instinctively take his side against his father; instead, we view their strained relationship as a tragedy, and yearn to see them reconciled.

That reconciliation comes in the film’s final sequence which reunites us with Penn as the elder Jack, the resentful little boy now turned into a doubtful and accusatory adult, walks through a door frame hanging in desert space onto a beach of souls where his loved ones are gathered.  It’s an ending that, in its heartrending hopefulness, is every bit as much a gamble as the cosmic sequences.  You may not agree with Tree of Life‘s religious message, but you have to admire the sincerity and passionate intensity with which Malick delivers it.  He leaves nothing on the table; he can’t be accused of stopping short of heaven.  Considering the pandering, preachy crud that passes as “inspirational” cinema these days, it’s a miracle to see a thoughtful spiritual movie that gives doubt its due, and isn’t self-servingly made to elicit “hallelujahs!” from the pious choir.  Like it or not, agree with the message or not, Tree of Life is a challenging, audacious, experimental and surpassingly beautiful work of cinema, and you’ll be better for having encountered it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exploratory, often mystifying 138-minute tone poem that will test any Malick non-fan’s patience for whispery voiceover and flights of lyrical abstraction.”–Justin Chang, Variety (Cannes screening)

“…[a] mad and magnificent film… a rebuke to realism…there are the baffling and bizarre symphonic passages of non-narrative spectacle, prehistoric jungles, arid deserts, galaxies and spiral shapes – Kubrickian landscapes of wonder. Weirdest of all is the engorged river in which a wounded dinosaur lies prostrate…”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (Cannes screening)

“…a beautiful, messy film: at times lyrical, intimate, and uplifting; at others, vast, inscrutable, and maddening.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Fox Searchlight – The Tree of Life – News stories from the film, links, and numerous supplemental video featurettes

The Tree of Life | Two Ways Through Life – A multimedia site featuring short clips from the film

IMDB LINK: The Tree of Life (2011)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Tree of Life | Film | The Guardian – The Guardian shows a serious Tree of Life obsession, cataloging no less than 37 articles and reviews from its pages that reference the film (including interviews with Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt )

Brad Pitt’s ‘Tree of Life’ Sets Off Mixed Frenzy of Boos, Applause (Cannes 2011)Hollywood Reporter account on the initially mixed reactions to the movie at Cannes

Giving VFX Birth to Tree of LifeInsight into the creation of the visual effects from the birth of the universe sequence, from Animation World Network

The Front Row: Sean Penn vs. Terrence MalickThe New Yorker‘s Richard Brody takes actor Penn to task for his comments to Le Figaro about The Tree of Life (to be fair to Penn, the report omits the actor’s qualifying statement, “it’s a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas.”)

Capsule: The Tree of Life (2011) – This site’s initial capsule review of the film

DVD INFO: The Tree of Life has not yet been issued separately on DVD.  It is currently only available in a Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack (buy).  The Blu-ray disc contains the trailer and “Exploring the Tree of Life,” a thirty minute documentary, as the only extras; the DVD is completely bare.  The film is also available On Demand (rent on-demand).

5 thoughts on “99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)”

  1. I don’t think Malick’s movie is “weird” in the sense that most of the movies on this site are, just insanely ambitious.

    I’m pretty sure Terrence Malick is the only person who could get funding for a project that is a deeply personal exploration of his childhood that also manages to fit in the entire history of the universe. I really admire the film. Each and every one of us are momentary stars on the indelible tapestry of the real world. It takes special effort to fit that cosmic viewpoint into our “ordinary lives.”

    Well, Malick goes for it, but does fall into old tropes. The too-strict father and the mother full of grace. It’s a very Christian world-view that Malick explores. Nothing against that, it’s just what the movie is.

    “Tree of Life” is an exploration of the unending cycle of parents and children, and the moments it really works for me is when it discards the generality and gets very specific. Pitt’s character is the archetypal father, demanding too much from his children, but he ends up being somebody just trying his best to prepare his children for the world, and that tragedy is that he is trying his best but simultaneously fails and succeeds.

    I agree with you that the single indelible image to take from this film is the “gracious dinosaur.” That single moment is loaded with meaning, and yet still manages to not contain any amount of sympathy. This is the world, our world.

    I loved “Tree of Life.” It’s not a perfect film, but I’ll be damned if anybody else has made a movie that swung for the stars like this one did.

  2. I, too, was surprised that anyone would consider this film ‘weird’.

    It’s certainly not weird, on my spectrum, to anything approaching the extent of movies not on any lists here, such as “Paris, Texas” or “The Cars that ate Paris” (and that’s just taking movies dealing with places not in France which share the same famous name!)

    While “The Tree” chooses a bravura cadenza to make its point, it is quite mainstream (even, to my way of thinking, by US standards) in being quite explicit and unambiguous on what that point is.

    Armed with that knowledge, I don’t remember ever feeling things were getting weird; but I guess to me weirdness presupposes casting the viewer adrift, trusting they will struggle, against considerable odds, to derive any sort of coherent messages or even directions from what they see. Or, alternatively, being supremely indifferent to the possibility that they will not bother.

    Of course, weirdness takes an infinite variety of guises, witness “Delicatessen”, or even “Les Triplettes de Belleville”, to mention a couple more which don’t feature here, about as different from each other as it is possible to get, but still I think bearing the indelible imprint of weirdness (as well as something verging on greatness).

    I think “Tree of Life” does more than verge on greatness, but I was a little queasy about the extent to which almost every message was underlined and had arrows pointing to it. interestingly, thought, not to the extent Malick originally planned, judging by the bootleg earlier screenplay circulating on the internet, which was about as subtle as a beer bottle to the forehead.

    1. Hi Anthony, I certainly did not think the movie was weird (enough) when I first saw it. So I agree with you to a large extent. But, I think those of us who like to challenge ourselves with movies that are “out there” often lose site of how a “normal” person views a movie like this.

      Roger Ebert confirmed my thoughts on that matter when he wrote: “Do you expect ‘The Tree of Life’ to be nominated as one of the best films of 2011? When I saw it last spring I certainly did… [But now] I doubt [the Best Picture winner] will be ‘The Tree of Life.’ The Academy shies away from winners that might alienate or confuse audiences… Having been overwhelmed by the experience of ‘The Tree of Life,’ it didn’t occur to me that some moviegoers would be baffled by it.

      I think most average moviegoers who screwed up the courage to see Tree of Life were baffled by it. I think this post from the blog Reel Life With Jane (titled “The Tree of Life is Dreamy and Weird and Even Sean Penn Didn’t Get It“) describes the mainstream viewpoint. She even suggests the movie should have been rated DW for “Downright Weird.”

      The Tree of Life is not one of the 100 weirdest movies ever made, but in my judgement it’s weird (and important) enough to make a List with 300+ slots.

      And in case you missed it we did certify Delicatessen as weird.

  3. The best film I’ve ever seen. People either love the film or hate it. There aren’t too many people on the fence with this one. I love it. I think Malick is the greatest filmmaker ever. Disagree if you want; I don’t care. I unapologetically love this film and it’s filmmaker.

  4. Malick was one of my favourite film-makers. I have watched “Badlands” about twenty times. In fact, on first viewing I watched it four times in one weekend. “Thin Red Line” is genius. This is tedious sermonising of the worst order, like a parody of Malick made by someone who wants to destroy his reputation. And that’s even before we get to the ludicrous dinosaur scene. With great anticipation, I coerced a posse of friends to the opening night screening. They were all left shaking their heads at me… not one of us bought this overwrought mess. Oh, but it is beautifully shot. And if that was all it took to make a good film, then every car advert would win at Cannes. This is just as mainstream, not even remotely weird.

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