Evolution, In Real Time! Terrence Malick’s Ponderous ‘The Tree of Life’ Ponders the Meaning of Existence

tree of life 10 fox searchlight Evolution, In Real Time! Terrence Malick’s Ponderous The Tree of Life Ponders the Meaning of ExistenceThe Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s incomprehensible history of evolution from seed to death (and beyond), was booed in Cannes. Now I know why. It is 138 minutes of the kind of pretentious twaddle that makes critics slobber and audiences snore. Sifting through the reams of recyclable blogs and print reviews dispatched from Cannes, where the film went on to win a prize, I’m saddened but also relieved to discover that all those frenzied fans and detractors have no more idea what this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo is about than I do. The more they try to explain it, the sillier they get. One over-zealous critic called it “a religious experience.” No wonder church attendance is down on Sunday.

I wanted to like this one, but Mr. Malick–who hates the press, never gives interviews, and has made only five films in 30 years (all flops)–makes it impossible. I can only report what I see. Gorgeous camerawork fills the spaces in the first hour with impressionistic images, as the director, a devout Christian questioning the mysteries of the universe, conducts private talks with God in the form of whispers. (“Where were you?” “Answer me.”) Instead of a narrative cinema, we get fields of sunflowers. Pastures of grazing cows. Oak limbs filtered by sun rays.  Instead of dialogue, we get boiling lava, stars like dust mites wafting through midnight darkness, rents in the earth’s surface that invite steaming gases, tears and crevices in the skin of a vessel called Earth that lead to volcanic explosions.  After an hour of disconnected poetic vision, it becomes wincingly clear that Mr. Malick has seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey too many times and is still trying to figure it out. By the time the movie reached the bloody tissues in the arterial walls of sea urchins floating up from the bottom of the sea, I looked at my watch. Forty-five minutes had passed without a sign of Brad Pitt, and I figured it was time for something to happen. Through deductive reasoning, I also decided, based on evidence, this was not a movie, but a TV special made for the National Geographic channel.

Enter the computer-generated dinosaurs, tramping through the woods and stomping each other like figs. Oh, I get it. This is Mr. Malick showing us the beginning of time.  Whole centuries are left out (thank God) but eventually some people appear, living simply off the land in Waco, Texas. (The movie was filmed in Austin, where it is hard to get a good T-rex.) Is there a plot? Well, no. I mean, maybe. That is, sort of. A man (Brad Pitt) and a woman (Jessica Chastain) bear three sons. Step by step, they learn to walk, talk, feel pain and fear, and explore the boundaries of love.  In the second hour of this interminable silent saga, Mr. Malick finally gets around to showing two parents raising their children–attending a barbecue, working in the garden, teaching the boys self-defense. They also learn the meaning of cruelty and hate, two things the father possesses in abundance. Never having lived up to his dream of becoming a musician, Dad is a strict and abusive disciplinarian–slapping his wife around, punishing the boys for the slightest offense, like talking at the table with your mouth full of meat loaf (the only thing the mother ever cooks). The kids witness the drowning of a playmate at the swimming pool. The mother hangs the laundry on the clothesline and washes her feet with a lawn hose in the Texas heat.  Paced at the speed of an inchworm climbing a tomato vine, the realism is admirable, but none of it has any trajectory or narrative structure.

With his short, stocky frame, thick bifocals and Texas Panhandle burr cut, Brad Pitt is perfect as a shapeless, faceless 1950s Everyman, and I was especially impressed by Hunter McCracken as the troubled eldest son, Jack, who also serves as the lens through which the actions unfold. Not a single character is developed beyond a penciled outline, the episodic fragments just fly around like popping corn kernels, and instead of acting, Mr. Pitt (who also co-produced) is heard on the soundtrack saying things like, “You spoke to me through her, before I knew I loved you” and “When did you first touch my heart?” Say what?  What is he talking about?  God, or his miserable, mistreated wife? There is no evidence that anything has ever touched his heart, although the family goes soft and sentimental when one of the boys is killed in the war. Which one? This little sidecar is very ambiguous, but we know it is not Jack, because he keeps appearing on top of a Houston office building in the present day with gray hair and the wrinkled face of a battered Sean Penn, who never says more than a dozen words, none of them bearing any significance. The middle-aged Jack is an architect, disillusioned and soulless, who has learned all the wrong lessons taught by his father, and lost his faith and purpose. Maybe this is a secret from the director’s own relationship with his father, but who cares? A movie must connect with the emotions of its audience, or what is the point? Obviously, the only thing left for all of these people to do is stage a big family reunion in heaven, which, in the director’s imagination, is a beatific place populated by people silently walking barefoot on a beach, waving at seagulls. 

Except for the children, the actors are a dull lot. They look bored and indifferent, as though waiting for someone to show up and explain what they’re doing here. No rich, foolish spectacle here–just a lot of arty shots, suitable for framing, better suited to an Imax travelogue. The commercial possibilities for The Tree of Life are zero, but I doubt if Terrence Malick cares. He’s a serious, ambitious, flawed and polarizing director who doesn’t give a hang about vampires, comic-book heroes, pirates wearing so much eyeliner they look like raccoons with earrings or mentally challenged adults trying to get laid. He’s a meticulous visionary who knows where to place a camera, but he hasn’t a clue about how to tell a story with simplicity and coherence. Content to make movies for himself that nobody else wants to see as long as he can find someone to foot the bill, he’s also an iconoclast searching for significance. So am I, but not 138 minutes worth. Anyone seeking symmetry in this cinematic taffy pull risks emerging from it with a pretzel for a brain.

The whole thing reminds me of what Pausanias, the skeptical second century Greek historian and travel agent, said about the hysteria surrounding the relic in the alleged tomb of Orpheus: “Those who have not seen a miracle, have at least seen a big pine cone.”

rreed@observer.com

THE TREE OF LIFE

Running time 138 minutes

Written and directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain 

 

2/4

 

rreed@observer.com

 

 

Comments

  1. Perrinyone says:

    I don’t care if “Badlands” was a “flop”….that movie was fantastic.  Ditto “Days of Heaven”.  And “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World” were both excellent as well.  Stylistically, it sounds as if “The Tree of Life” merely expands on what he’s been doing in the “Thin Red Line” and “New World”. Haven’t seen it yet, but I don’t see what calling his other movies – which were all good – “flops” has to do with anything.  I have never EVER cared what a film’s box office is….and in fact, over the last 20 years, most of the time when a film ISN’T a flop, it’s horrible.  Most movies that aren’t “flops” don’t hold a candle to an (influential and much-imitated) masterpiece like “Badlands”.

  2. Joan Moes says:

    Dead on!! Thanks, Rex, for saying what the other critics were too chicken to admit!

  3. MikeZReady says:

    Mr. Reed:  I must admit that I’ve often found you a touch too critical, even for a film critic.  In this case, however, your review was perfectly accurate.  I’ve never seen a more self-absorbed, ponderous, bloated and lifeless film.  I’ll have to check your reviews more often.

  4. El-turron2 says:

    The New York Observer should seriously reconsider having you as a reviewer Mr. Reed. Neither your work nor your attitude are professional and I can quite honestly say you are rather trying hard to damage the good work of a great many people within the film industry and in particular, the people behind “The Tree of Life”, which is a triumph of humans and a celebration to life.

    I will complain officially to The New York Observer because your work and your lines here insult the audience and actually is far away from what one could expect of a journalist or art reviewer.

    Perhaps you are being paid a comision for each time your review gets a hit or feedback on the internet? So this is your tactic to get attention: to produce a shocking review.

    Best wishes with your own evolution Mr. Reed.

    JT

  5. Seeker 1975 says:

     The New York Observer should seriously reconsider having you as a
    reviewer Mr. Reed. Neither your work nor your attitude are professional
    and I can quite honestly say you are rather trying hard to damage the
    good work of a great many people within the film industry and in
    particular, the people behind “The Tree of Life”, which is a triumph of
    humans and a celebration to life.

    I will complain officially to The New York Observer because your work
    and your lines here insult the audience and actually is far away from
    what one could expect of a journalist or art reviewer.

    Perhaps you are being paid a commision for each time your review gets a
    hit or feedback on the internet? So this is your tactic to get
    attention: to produce a shocking review.

    Best wishes with your own evolution Mr. Reed.

    JT

    1. Guest says:

      I completely agree. I will notify The New York Observer as well and everyone else here should do the same. This guy needs to be fired if this publication wants to retain any credibility.

      1. Nobody says:

        Oh, the criticism police. So, did Rex get fired or lynched for his opinion?

      2. Avid Movie-Goer says:

        Get off your high horse. This movie was an unexplained snooze fest, and certainly a waste of Sean Penn’s talents.

    2. Hoya7 says:

      JT’s comments are even more pretentious twaddle than the film itself, a truly astonishing achievment.

  6. Ben says:

    I think you are trying to put a system of story-telling on the tree of life when there is none. Film is an art form, just like poetry. Not everyone can understand a certain poem, and a poem doesn’t always fit into a specific outline. This film is like a poem. It moves like one, speaks like one, and sounds like one. You rather liked it or you didn’t. It either spoke to you or it didn’t. Don’t call it a bad movie because you didn’t understand or it didn’t connect with you. It is what it is, and a movie critic, someone who watches mainstream movies all the time, shouldn’t be the one to tell you what a piece of poetic film is about. You got to see it for yourself, and my advice? SEE THIS FILM ANYWAY. Even if you come out of it like this critic did, I think it’s in all of our best interests to expand our horizons, both in film and in our own lives….. But that’s just my opinion.

  7. Al Milligan says:

    Some people just live in their own little worlds.  The Tree of Life was not about a family in Waco, Texas in the 50’s.  It was a retelling of the book of Job and suffering. The spiritual nature
    of suffering is in the play between nature and grace.  It is not resolved, nor could it be.  That there is beauty, love, greatness in
    man’s ability to transcend his/her own finitude to be raised to eternal
    life is part of the evolution of man.  One thing you can say about
    creation and eternity, you are there for grace of nature, it’s your choice.
    Therein is the freedom against all gods and for God Is Love.  Loved this film and cried at its vision of suffering and joy. 

  8. Jimmy says:

    Perfect!  I could not agree more.  Not since EYES WIDE SHUT have I felt so tormented in a cinema.  Never-ending nonsense.  On and on and on, first one thing, then another — none of it ever adding up to much.  I mean, the images are gorgeous.  But nice photography alone does not a movie make.  I love all kinds of arty and foreign films, but this thing bored me silly.  I prayed for it to end, and I’m not a religious sort.

    1. El-turron2 says:

      You shouldn’t talk badly about the many things you can’t understand. You clearly have limitations to recognise fundamental phylosophical matters. This movie is one of them. Just leave it like that and stop your rubbish and this destructive attitude. JT

  9. Seeker 1975 says:

    You shouldn’t talk badly about the many things you can’t understand. You clearly have limitations to recognise fundamental phylosophical matters. This movie is one of them. Just leave it like that and don’t keep having this destructive attitude. JT

    1. Hoya7 says:

      Fine. I have completed university courses in logic,epistemology, cosmology and ontology, so please be assured I am cable of understanding to this question: Name and explain the “fundamental philosophical matters” in this film. 

  10. Domorey says:

    Good God, girl, you were a has been back in 1969 when you did Myra Breckenridge. You’re still desecrating the culture. Why don’t you just go lay down, Rex. You have no relevance anymore.

  11. madCanada says:

    Rex, you are a sad, ugly, vicious, lazy, cowardly little man. Your life’s work amounts to nothing more than this string of bitchy, jealous attacks on people far braver and better than you. Look at Roger Ebert, there is a film reviewer with a soul and something to say. But you have learned nothing in your life and contributed nothing. Nice legacy. And it’s too late to change.

  12. Guest says:

    This was supposed to be some kind of joke, right? I really don’t believe anyone with a solid enough understanding of the English language to write this can seriously be this stupid.

    He hasn’t a clue about how to tell a story with simplicity and coherence? Have you seen any of his other films? Days of Heaven and The New World weren’t simply and cohesive enough for you? Wow.

    It sounds like you don’t have a clue about film (or art in general) if you think he was aiming for a simple, structured, narrative story here.

    Malick is a devout Christian? Is that why he showed the Big Bang instead of God creating the Earth in seven days?

    Again though, I doubt this is real. If it is, weep for humanity. We’ve reached a new level of stupidity. Thanks, Rex.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Sometimes I disagree profoundly with Rex, however after having seen TTOL, he’s sarcastically correct – I love Mallick, but he REALLY needed some help in the editing room with this one – even the voice overs are barely audible!  ??? In a film so bereft of any kind of narrative, to be straining your ears in the hope of hearing some of the 5 minutes of actual dialogue in this epic is ridiculous – maybe we’ll see an edited version someday – moments of brilliance, however overall a bona fide snoozefest.

  14. Matt Fee says:

    I”m not sure how I feel about this movie. I can understand those who have mixed opinions or didn’t even like the film. But calling it “pretentious twaddle?” “Metaphysical mumbo-jumbo?”  Seriously?

    “Through deductive reasoning, I also decided, based on evidence, this was
    not a movie, but a TV special made for the National Geographic channel.”

    -OK so it doesn’t fit in with your special definition of movie. So what?

    “He’s a meticulous visionary who knows where to place a camera, but he
    hasn’t a clue about how to tell a story with simplicity and coherence.”

    -Do you really think Malick was going for “simplicity and coherence”?  Whether you like it or not, I can understand, but “clueless”? This film went through years of editing. What Malick did, he did deliberately, not “cluelessly”. He’s made simple, coherent films in the past. It’s not like something that’s “beyond his skills”.

    “Anyone seeking symmetry in this cinematic taffy pull risks emerging from it with a pretzel for a brain.”

    -Since when is there a necessary causal relation between symmetry and decent film-making? You seem to be assuming that this is something all good films should have.

    I can respect your opinions, but throughout this whole review, you just come across as dorky and unprofessional. I’m not saying this film is the end-all of film-making. But consider for example, lines like this:

    “After an hour of disconnected poetic vision, it becomes wincingly clear that Mr. Malick has seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey too many times and is still trying to figure it out.”

    Seriously? Seriously?

  15. Jwillmo says:

    After this was over, I thought to myself, “Rex Reed is gonna hate this.” And you have not disappointed. I seriously challenge you to name one film that is the least bit non-linear or cerebral that you have ever in your decades of films reviews liked or even understood. Cause the list of great films in this vein you’ve dismissed is staggering. I know most people think it’s a miracle you’ve survived this long as a critic, I think it’s a miracle you’ve survived this long period with as few functioning brain cells as you must have. But seriously, name one even remotely challenging movie you have ever liked. One. I dare you.

  16. Flowerstone says:

    Rex Reed is hilarious and brilliant…Tree of Life!!!  What the…………makes you want to tie (plastic) frogs to rockets and see if the universe responds.

  17. Malic Kalikimaka says:

    “Suitable for framing!”

    Best review ever! 

    No artsy pretension here.

    Well done Mr. Reed!

  18. George says:

    I love your critic about the film but I prefer the film. 

  19. Yo Soy Alx says:

    TOOOOOOOTALLY AGREE!!!!

    I think you just said the word: Pretentious!

    Just saw the movie last night and exactly had the same thoughts at the moment:
    National Geographic??
    Space Odyssey???
    WTF!!!

    After i came out the movie theather i ran to the internet trying to find something about what i saw, all i found were critics talking about a master piece, a piece of art, and talking about the life of Malik and how much it was related to the film.

    i like art, i like poetry, i like photography, but man, i found myself praying, not to question “were are you?”, but “when is this film gonna end?”!!!!

  20. Nobody says:

    Interesting film.

    I feel sorry for those religious or naive enough to like the film for its spirituality. It’s exploitation, nothing more. You guys should also read that book about the child that “returned” to life and described what God was like. The one the child’s father wrote.

    I feel sorry for those that are so deep in cinematography and cinema to allow themselves to be absorbed by “good” cinematography in this film. The cinematography in this movie had the most cliches I have ever seen in a film. Too much freedom to cinematographers. It’s the thematology of the average dslr user. Sun in frame, dancing behind subjects, cliche locations known to photographers, everything. All it misses is a flower shot with an insect in sunset.

    I feel sorry for those who believe others did not like it because they didn’t understand it. I also feel sorry for those who “liked it” because they don’t want to be one of those who “didn’t understand it”. have faith in your opinion, whatever that is.

    The acting is very good. Too much cinematography spoils it in all its good moments.

    The plot is simplistic to the point of stupidity. All I can say about it, is “Ok, I get it, now what? So what?”. A sentiment by itself is not a story. A chiche realisation is not a story.

    The film is a masterpiece in the way it handles memories. This is how memory works in humans. Fragments. The effect is beautiful and I haven’t seen another attempt that gets close. Nothing new, but very good results.

    Two well known actors prepare me for something more than a beautiful experiment. A standard drama perhaps. Something less pretentious. The film did not deliver.

    Somebody should apologise to both stars for their frustration during the shooting of the film.

    I would watch it again and I would buy the Bluray, but any critic giving this film more than 2 stars should be ashamed. As a critic, you have to guide the cinemagoing public in their choice. Most of your readers would feel betrayed after seeeing the film. It has some interesting aspects for those who study cinema, but overall it’s a pretty bad film. The boredom…

  21. Nobody says:

    I just discovered (a little late) that Sean Pean was not very enthusiastic with the pretentious nonsense either. This sums it up:


    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. “One of the admirers of this great piece of art that are attacking this reviewer should call Sean and explain what the writer/director himself could not explain to one of his lead actors.

  22. thegemini says:

    MarydGray, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The almost jaw-droppingingly lunatic adulation of Malick’s film  in most of these comments reminds me of Joseph Addison’s (or was it Sir Richard Steele?) essay called “The Trunk Maker at the Theater.” He would sit in the front row of the balcony, and at various times during a performance would bang his cane loudly on the floor which, as the other theatergoers knew him to be a man of peerless judgement, would construe to be admiration for a moment in the scan onstage, and they would burst into enthusiastic applause, when the truth of the matter was that the trunk maker was hard of hearing and the when an actor’s voice dropped, he would bang his cane in annoyance. The adulation here and by most critics of this almost hilariously composed pastiche posing as a film is nothing if not utterly hilarious.

  23. Scott Riedel says:

    Rex, you failed to report the annoying, pretentious score! I never would have imagined how annoying the sound of birds’ chirping could be!

  24. Aboz says:

    Malick simply plants the seed of an idea through visual imagery and Jack’s memories/”family moments in time” to depict his interpretation of nature vs. grace….the beauty of this minimally-scripted approach (while it may be seen by Mr Reed as the inability to “tell a story with simplicity and coherence”) is that we, the audience, can extract whatever threads of this idea are relevant to our own lives.

    Mr. Reed, you must have the meaning of life all figured out and are no longer curious or searching for anything bigger than yourself beyond your own “bubble”….Although, I doubt this sincerely as you state that “a movie must connect with the emotions of its audience, or what is the point?”   If you’re not affected by the death of a child or brother, your heart must have been on vacation the day you previewed this film.

    P.S. – it is not Pitt being heard on the soundtrack saying things
    like, “You spoke to me through her, before I knew I loved you” and
    “When did you first touch my heart?” – This is Penn’s character Jack pondering the question of when he was first exposed to “God” which was clearly through his mother who represents “Grace/Love/the idea of God”.

  25. Timetoplaythegame2008 says:

    Bad film review, and crap film reviewer. How can you say all his films were flops? Days of Heaven is a masterpiece and The Thin Red Line was nominated for an Oscar in 1998.  I will admit this probably isn’t a masterpiece, and initially would appear boring in parts, but there are some really nice touches in the film, beautiful images, and haunting sounds, and a poignant social commentry. I think this requires several viewings to contemplate the bigger picture – there are many themes going on here, and is difficult to grasp all at once, which this film reviewer hasn’t managed to. Certainly no Dr K.