Tag Archives: Cosmic

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 Continue reading 99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

CAPSULE: THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

The Tree of Life has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.  This initial review is left here for archival purposes.  Please visit the film’s official Certified Weird entry for further discussion of the film.

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick

FEATURING: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

PLOT: A man recalls his childhood in suburban Waco, Texas, and his difficult relationship with

Still from The Tree of Life (2011)

his father; in the process he also seems to unlock some primal memories of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Any 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.  But, although there are many strange images and ideas in the stream-of-cosmic-consciousness Tree of Life, surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as “poetic” rather than “weird.”

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, almost dreamlike domestic memories, the story frequently drifts from reality to fantasy: at times, the boy imagines his mother as Snow White encased in a glass coffin in the forest, or sees a mysterious tall man looming over him in an arched attic.  In one memorable shot, a child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom swims out the window as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine.  But what people remember and talk about most are the amazing sequences of the laying of the foundation of the earth—the formation of nebulae, the birth of stars, molten lava boiling, merging into visions of the dance of cellular mitosis as the Tree of Life begins to form.  This leads to those famous graceful dinos who enact a unlikely primal drama, before a meteor wipes them out and we jump forward to our protagonist’s birth.  The cosmic creation sequences seem to come ex nihilo, and, despite the frequent comparisons to the far-out visuals of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re more like watching the “Best of Nova” on fast forward.  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 intrigued by his brashness in recreating the cosmos for our benefit.  The middle section of the film, which details young Jack’s inability to comprehend gruff and demanding dad Brad’s harsh plan to toughen him up to face life’s challenges, will prove tough going for many due to the slow pace and lack of narrative flow, but it fits the movie’s meditative themes perfectly and gives the mind a chance to turn over the metaphor Malick molds.  The film’s finale, which may be its weakest (or at least its most divisive) feature, moves from the cosmic to the supercosmic as Sean Penn, 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.  You may not agree with Tree of Life‘s ultimate religious message, but you have to admire the sincerity and passionate intensity with which Malick delivers it.  He leaves nothing on the table.  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 (though they will likely praise it, too).  Based on the screening I attended, I can say that the reports of audible exhaling when the credits roll and the buzz of excited conversation outside theaters afterwards are not exaggerated.  Like it or not, or agree with the message or not, Tree of Life is a challenging and audacious work of cinema, and you’ll be better for having encountered it.

Beginning with the Charles Starkweather-inspired Badlands in 1973, the perfectionistic and reclusive Terrence Malick has only completed five feature films.  All of them are paced with unfashionable slowness, feature gorgeous natural cinematography, and wrestle with weighty themes (the Harvard-educated director was a Rhodes scholar who briefly taught philosophy at MIT before turning to film).  Now 63 years old, Malick has another project currently in the works, but The Tree of Life has the feeling of a cinematic summation and a swan song.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

NOTE: We loved The Tree of Life but didn’t really think it was strange enough to qualify as a “weird” movie (by our elevated standards).  366 readers disagreed, and in the 2nd Reader’s Choice poll they selected The Tree of Life to be placed on the List of Candidates for the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time.  So it is done.