The Tree of Life (US 2010)

I usually avoid reviews until after I have seen a film, but inevitably I had picked up a lot of comment about this film already. I am not a great Terrence Malick fan: I liked his early films a lot more than his recent ones. For the first hour of the film I struggled to really get involved: for the second hour I was enthralled by the drama: for the last half-an-hour I was again bemused. It seems to me that the parts are better than the whole. Specifically, I really like the family drama, which is possibly autobiographical: rather than being annoyed I was seriously puzzled by the cosmological overtones of a series of insert sequences.

Basically it seems that Jack O’Brien [played by Sean Penn in his briefest screen appearance for years] is looking back to his childhood and upbringing. There is his father Mr. O’Brien [Brad Pitt], the Mr. is significant. Then there is his mother [Jessica Chastain], and his two brothers. One of these dies in his teens. I thought another also died, but that was just confusion from the sometimes-elliptical narrative. The development of this drama is impressive. Gradually we learn of the contradiction and conflicts that underlie the family. And the initial picture of a god-fearing family at ease in its post-war affluence gives way to a realisation of the repression and oppression at its heart.

This flashback is interspersed with shots of nature, the universe, and the ‘big bang’? Presumably these relate in some way to Jack memories. They are frequent in the first hour and recur again the last half-an-hour when Jack also imagines a family union [perhaps] after death. Since I never figured a clear relationship between the drama and the film of natural phenomenon, [created with the assistance of Douglas Trumbull] I preferred the middle hour where these occur infrequently.

To be honest I felt that I was watching a feature combining excerpts from 2001 and Kubrick’s home movies.

I have now looked at some film reviews, mainly offering praise, if sometimes qualified. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian thinks that the film ‘may well come to be seen as this decade’s great Christian artwork’. As a Marxist and materialist that leaves me with little sympathy for the film project. However, I think the ‘Christian’ is mis-placed, though it is true that the mother figure is presented as a devout [and to be honest rather cloying] practising Christian. But overall the film struck me as far more pantheistic than Christian: especially in the constant shots of nature. Later in his review Bradshaw offers this: ‘gigantic scenes from the secret life of the cosmos endow these family dramas with something alienated bewildering . . . in which their traumas are vanishingly tiny and yet have excruciatingly new spiritual magnitude.’ The comments strike me as almost as portentous as I found the film. It is not that the film attempts to address a sense of the spiritual: Carl Dreyer’s Ordet [The Word, 1952) does this very successfully and I find it deeply moving. In Malick it appears to be an attempt at religiosity, which does not really cohere or offer a clear sense of meaning. Like an onion [or Lacan] when you peel it all away there is nothing at the centre.

As I said, I like Malick’s early films Badlands (1974) and Days of Heaven (1978), though I am now curious as to what degree his recent films might be prefigured there. Fortunately both are available, in fact they are coming to the Leeds Hyde Park in August. The Thin Red Line (1998) I found somewhat portentous. Moreover, as with many so-called anti-war movies, it failed to address the concrete questions of the actual war it represented. Apart from the asides into nature, it seemed rather similarly to may other US war movies I have endured. The New World (2005) I thought lacked a sense of interest in its characters, and was not that interesting visually.

Malick is clearly well served by talented collaborators, notably in this film by the director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki. I did not actually find watching the film dragged as it is so beautiful to look at. But for 138 minutes more is required. Part of the problem would seem to be that Malick’s work has achieved cult status: hence he is able to recruit extremely talented stars who are also pretty good box office. That may be part of the problem, the film feels overblown. In a way that I find similar to the later Kubrick excess seems to trump the human qualities of the films. So does the emperor have any clothes? I feel that this feature demonstrates the problems of some auteur criticism. André Bazin presumably would love this movie, as he appeared to think that a poor film by an auteur was preferable to a good one by a non-auteur. I am sure that the only valid explanation of The Tree of Life lies in the experiences and memories of the director Terrence Malick. But I think there are other filmmakers around who could provide a retro look at the 1950s for a lot less money and with greater coherence.

7 comments

  1. Rona

    For a slightly different take… I really enjoyed this film. I’m aware that once you start writing about it, it is difficult not to sound pompous or attempting some kind of false erudition. But I did think the film genuinely attempted to bring together different parts in order to create a whole – and I responded to the ideas about religion in a slightly different way to Roy’s review above. I totally agree that the family drama is really absorbing and affecting and acts as the central emotional core to the film. The other sections did present something of a 2001, Space Odyssey moment, potentially interposed into the conventional narrative. However, I did (and without trying to ‘think’ about it at the time) find that the big bang sequences and the religious imagery acted as meditative backdrops to the more dramatic story. If Malick was attempting (and who am I to say) some kind of exploration of our relationship to our world and how our lives are constituted, then I didn’t think introducing the meditations (spoken by the actors – as their characters?) jarred. Instead, they worked as further perspectives on the narrative from within the narrative – how we try to make sense of what happens to us and those we love and how the ‘grand narratives’ such as religion do or don’t work. Sean Penn’s character certainly seemed to be searching for some kind of transcendent experience and whilst I disengaged from that final sequence at times, I still found the overall effect incredibly moving- especially in the act of the mother giving her son (freely at last) – a resolution out of intense and painful grief which the clichés offered by Fiona Shaw’s character were intended (I think) to be inadequate to alleviate at all. On a different level, the different scenes and sequences from the boy’s childhood – creating those piecemeal memories which immediately resonates with our own particular memories were powerfully realised – especially the way in which the camera work moved restlessly along with the action or took the point of view of a small child. It captured something immediately of the way we remember things as well as what – and that enhanced it even further for me. With such period detail (I see Jack Fisk was the production designer – who brought, for example, There Will Be Blood‘s frontier world so sparely to vivid life) the story was anchored and specific – a great family melodrama – but Malick did succeed in stretching the form more towards visual poetry without losing the links between the two thematic and stylistic tones.

  2. keith1942

    Hi Rona

    it fact, it is my review. I think the religious overtones which I felt in the film did not work for me. I can see why you make you comments and liked the film.
    All the material about the family is very good. The transcendent material, I am not convinced that Malik actually is clear about what it is supposed to mean to the chracters or to an audience.
    One person I spoke to mentioned the films by Godfrey Regio – I know quite a few people rate them, I found them equally portentous.

  3. Rona

    Many apologies, Keith – noticed on reading, slipped up on writing! Reggio’s films sit in shrink-wrap on my shelves, bought on the strength of the kind of recommendation you describe so the resonance with Malick makes sense. This film heathen has been properly cattle-prodded to watch them (Just checked – the well-known Qatsi trilogy is available on lovefilm for anyone else interested).

  4. Tom Barrance

    I think it’s wishful thinking to suggest that the film is other than overtly Christian. I was struck by how powerful and immersive I found it even though I have no sympathy for the religious message. It has some ridiculous moments – at one point a dinosaur shows mercy to its prey – but as an experience it’s extraordinary. It does make a big difference where you see it. I watched it digitally projected on a huge screen and found it absolutely engrossing, though half the small audience had left by 40 minutes in.

    The film is largely autobiographical (Malick’s brother committed suicide as a young man).

  5. keith1942

    It seems that this film has come ‘top’ in the Sight & Sound ‘ten best’ of the year.
    This just makes me even more dubious about such listings.

  6. dbmoviesblog

    I agree with you somewhat. I expected a lot from ‘The Tree of Life’ knowing how critically acclaimed the picture is. I was disappointed. I failed to grasp the idea behind the film. In terms of artistic merit the film can be rated very high, but that is where it ends. However, I really enjoyed Lars’s ‘Melancholia’. And now regard this film as one of the best I have ever seen in my life. It uses the same technique of visually stunning images, but in ‘Melancholia’ they are not ‘over-done’ and the audience can clearly follow the plot.

  7. keith1942

    I assume you think Melancholia is the better film.
    I think it does what Tree of Life fails to do, combines cosmological symbolism with a human drama.
    Malik can still compose good drama, I think the family sequences are very good, but I suspect the fulsome praise about ‘auteur’ have gone to his head.
    Lars Von trier seems to have a better strategy, and his latest is the best since Dogville.

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