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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Tree of Life

The first thing that strikes me about the response to The Tree of Life is that the film is suffering a bit from Eyes Wide Shut syndrome… which is to say, it’s a very simple, clear idea that people are getting distracted from by the light show.

Well, the idea is simple.  The ideas are not.

The Tree of Life is the story of Jack, a boy, whose tale is remembered as a man by his adult self.  (That’s Sean Penn.) But the movie rests on Jack in a way that gives a Malick film its clearest protagonist since Days of Heaven. 

The theme is also stated pretty clearly up front… Nature vs a human idea of Grace.  Malick stacks the deck a bit by offering the non-biblical creation of earth, using images that bring all steps back to a visual of cellular reproduction. However, inside of Jack’s family, things are more complex, as the mother attempts to live with grace, but is drawn to the wildness of nature and the father lives by his natural instinct, but fights to live the grace that does not fit him throughout.

Some have already simplified the father, the Brad Pitt character, into “the abusive father,” but I would argue that point.  I think he is a raw man who wants the grace for his children that he’ll never have. I believe his offers of love.  

The mother (Jessica Chastain) is a pinball in this pre-feminist world.  She doesn’t want her husband to be harsh, yet she wants the discipline he offers and can’t offer herself.

Jack is not only stuck between the two, but is also the only son to come of age during the telling of this tale.  It is time for him to take some power for himself, but how?  

Grown-Up Jack lives, literally, in glass houses and offices, as his parents do.  It’s a prison of glass, where you can see nature, but never touch it, never feel it. Is his adult ability to rein in nature, leaving his life rather chilly, a good thing? Did he give up on nature when his brother died, decades earlier, living in a grace coffin?

Of course, all of that is the subtext.  What the text reminds me of is the found footage films of recent years. Obviously, this footage is as beautiful as a television commercial. This ain’t in Super 8.  But it’s the feel… even more so than previous Malick, which has that unsettled feeling (even though the filmmaker cuts longer than any major filmmaker).

It’s almost a silent movie. Malick’s trademark of spoken word over images that don’t match exactly fits better than ever before, as The Story isn’t screaming for your focus.  It is a reverie with moments of detail.  It’s how people think, I think, as we slow down to consider our lives.  

Malick delivers as intimate a portrait of a fairly normal childhood-coming-into-manhood as any filmmaker ever has. And Malick being Malick, it is the tiniest of things that makes it work.  The way boys jostle each other for no reason as they walk pretty much anywhere.  The way they approach nature.  The way they stare and make noise and brood and leap and break and heal and think so hard that they can hardly stand it anymore.  

Malick takes the time to let us consider our own feelings about this young man’s pov.  How did we see our parents at that age. How did we think they treated each other… and now that we are adults, what was really going on?

It is one of the master strokes of Tree of Life that Malick offers very few answers… even as these characters go through big events.  And in most films, this would be disastrous. Most films in this dramatic arena are about exploring how things bounce through the mind and heart.  This film is about the soul… the universal soul. 

I have no connection to the family in this movie, by faith, geography, class, ethnicity, history, etc.  But I am Jack.  His parents are my parents.  His siblings are my siblings.  Because they embody the challenges of life, not because of who they are on paper.

Even the spirituality of the film, which could be argued to be anti-organized religion, if you wanted to, speaks to the universal.  You can’t get much more universal than the origins of the planet (and species).

I look forward to seeing this film again… like sitting in Malick’s church… silent and solemn and challenging and reflective. 

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15 Responses to “Review: Tree of Life”

  1. Keil Shults says:

    Nice piece, although it makes next weekend seem that much further away.

  2. Bitplayer says:

    This movie sounds like an bloated bore. You’ve convinced me. I’m curious who are Malick’s money marks. If I recall none of his movies ever make a lot of money yet he get to keep making them.

  3. Keil Shults says:


    Yeah, 5 films in 40 years — he’s the auteur equivalent of a Chinese sweatshop.

  4. lazarus says:

    How dare anyone give money to an artist whose films don’t make money? The nerve!

  5. Xavier says:

    The nerve to give money to a artist, instead to the clowns that make classic garbage like saw and fast and furious series

  6. You do realize, Xavier, that giving money to ‘the clowns’ who make Saw and Fast/Furious often makes a lot of money, which allows those studios to give some of that money to ‘artists’.

  7. Edward Havens says:

    Bitplayer, do you have access to the financials for Malick’s movies? While his movies may not make as much in a month as the latest Pirates movie makes in a day, but anyone who has any knowledge of the film industry knows domestic box office is now but a very small slice of the earnings pie.

  8. David Poland says:

    Back up over 20% these days, EH, and growing…

  9. LexG says:

    The idea that TREE OF LIFE is going to play like standard AMC and Pacific multiplexes at any point is more surreal than the movie itself.

    I’m sure it’s opening in limited “prestige” venues for a week or two, no? Because the first Friday this plays some Valley-mall AMC for belching white guys in sandals and Hawaiian shirts, and for thuggish teens who just see Pitt and Penn’s names and figure whatever… This is gonna be THE groan-and-storm-out movie of ALL TIME.

  10. palmtree says:

    Awesome! “THE groan-and-storm-out movie of ALL TIME” makes me want to see it even more…

  11. Bitplayer says:

    Okay what’s the overseas upside for a non experimental non-narrative film even with an international star in the lead.

  12. yancyskancy says:

    Why do any of us care about what the money people choose to invest in? Can’t we just be happy that they occasionally decide to back something that’s NOT aimed at third graders? I’m sure they manage to stay out of the poor house one way or another.

    I know absolutely nothing about how TREE OF LIFE was financed, but I would assume that Malick knew he’d need a box office name to raise the budget he wanted, and Pitt and/or Penn agreed to become attached.

  13. Dr. Bill says:

    There have been only three filmakers in my lifetime, whose works I eagerly anticipated each time. David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Gandhi), Stanley Kubrick (2001 A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, AI – finished badly by Stephen Spielberg, Eyes Wide Shut) and lastly Terence Malick.
    I seen Days of Heaven on the day it had opened in Manhattan many years ago. I was awe struck and stayed to see it again immediately. All of Malick’s films have this otherworldy dreamy approach, that counterintuitively, at least for me, make the reality in them hyper real.
    What all of the three gentlemen above had (and one is still with us) in common was that they only chose to make films (not “movies”) when they had something to say.
    As with all artists, profit is nice but it is not the primary motive.
    Others choose to make populist popcorn mass entertainment movies so that they may use that revenue for projects they’d want to do for the love of it.
    It is incontestable that film is an artform. Movies however are big business, but the two are not the same.

  14. Kenny says:

    Worst movie I have ever seen. Disjointed, not so artsy as people try to make it out to be. Artsy scenes need to be relevant to the story line. One scene appeared about five times – possibly some animation from a Hubble Telescope image – and it had no relevance that I could see whatsoever. The scenes of everyone walking around on the beach were absolutely hoaky. I was releaved when the thing was done.

  15. mike says:

    I had to Fast forward thorugh the DVD and even that was a wast of time. The ten minute rule certainly applies to this film – if you dont like it after 10 minutes then you will be wasting your time like on this film.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon