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

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s incomprehensible history of evolution from seed to death (and beyond), was booed in Cannes.

The 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.

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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.”



Running time 138 minutes

Written and directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain 







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