Review: The Tree of Life


I’ve deleted several sentences right out of the gate this morning. Talking about this film is like spooning up mercury, or herding cats. First, let me tell you what type of movie this is not:

  • a date movie
  • linear in its narrative
  • “feel-good”
  • transparent; without deep symbolism
  • for the easily bored or impatient viewer

Au contraire, mon frère. This movie takes work. With a 2.5-hour runtime — some scenes going as long as 10 minutes with no dialogue — and a seriously convoluted plot presentation, one has to pay attention. Bigtime.

Amidst back-and-forth scenes from the late 1950s to the present day, we’re shown the troubled life of a man named Jack (Sean Penn), who, while now in his mid-50s, still struggles to reconcile the death of his brother (we’re led to believe during the Viet Nam War) at age 19. Through Malick’s eyes, we see Jack’s choices in life as a comparison to the ins and outs of basic survival from the beginnings of time.

No, really — he shows us stuff from the beginnings of time:  a dinosaur conflict (one dinosaur emerges from a thicket to find another on the shoreline, wounded and unable to defend itself), exploding nebulae, the dawn of the universe, a giant asteroid hitting Earth, the seas forming, prehistoric ocean creatures…he runs the gamut. For a while (during the first extended period of wordless scenes), I thought I was watching a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick-like images like this, this and this took over the screen for lengths of time that seemed to push the edge of what the average moviegoer would tolerate. After a while, I became a bit suspicious. Was this going to be one of those pretentious outings by a reeeeeally serious director who just likes to hear himself talk about abstract concepts? Is it one of those movies that’s so weird, people will automatically ooh and ahh and call it art and nominate it for Best Picture? It also won the Cannes Film Festival’s top honor, by the way.

Fortunately, the acting of Brad Pitt saved me from jumping to that conclusion. As Jack’s strict, inventor father, Pitt gathers the pieces together for us. Tragically frustrated (he chose, out of necessity, to be an engineer rather than pursue his love of music), Pitt delivers the perfect picture of a man so driven by his failures, he is determined beyond all else to see that his sons don’t repeat history. The effect on his eldest son (Penn) is profound and long-lasting — as things like this usually are.

So after all these words, I’m still not to the core of the thing. And as it’s 5:54 and I’m running out of time, I won’t get there today. Suffice it to say that if you watch this film, open up your mind and forsake all preconceived notions of storytelling. Enjoy the stellar performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, and let other chips fall where they may.

On the Rat-O-Meter scale of five cheeses, I give The Tree of Life:


3 thoughts on “Review: The Tree of Life

  1. Tom Hanks

    Hey I forgot to mention this when we were talking about movies of the year which is strange because IMO this is the best movie ever made. To my taste anyway.

    Malicks pretentiousness seems to rub people the wrong way but I think Malick is only pretentious like God is pretentious. Thats the most pretentious thing I’ve ever said.

    I think its difficult to get into the movies symbolism without getting religious, but if thats not a problem with whoever you are talking about it with I found this to be insightful:

    Anywho Jax I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. You should check out “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” which are Malick at a more accessible level. Not that I think you need that, it just depends on what you want out of a movie. I admit “Tree of Life” is not a joyful fun movie going experience. But I think it goes to places film has not been before and if film is an art it should be pushing at those boundaries and do so in a way that is specific and unique to the medium. It is more of an experience than a story and relates its message more through feeling and mood than in words.

    In other news I’m sorry I’ve been out of contact. I’ve unplugged from the rest of the world for awhile but I’ll be back.

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Well look who it is. Yay!

      Thanks for your insight — I always covet your take on these things, especially when there’s doubt or confusion in my mind as to a director’s real intent. I agree that artists should push the envelope; indeed, look what I’ve done to the concept of mediocrity in online journaling.


      Let’s get together soon and catch up.


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