The Tree of Life: Bring a book.

There is absolutely no way that you will feel neutral about Terrence Malick’s bold conversation piece. You will love it for its innovation, or you will hate it for torturing you. Or, you will opt out entirely and go spend time with your loved ones, doing your best to shield them from the poorly executed visions of pompous artists.

If you follow the various dramas of film criticism, which I don’t recommend, you’re probably already aware that The Tree of Life, the darling of Cannes, is causing some consternation. Critics everywhere rave over Terrence Malick’s latest achievement, applauding his courage and skill at evoking powerful feelings while tackling overwhelmingly huge questions like, “Where is God? What does He think about us? How did we get here? Where are we on his priority list when there are rings around Jupiter to consider?” A beautiful rendition of heavy stuff, as experienced through the eyes of a child.

The majority of the public just wanted the damn thing to end, and this time, I’m siding with them.

As a good friend of mine says (often and with feeling), “I don’t care how beautiful it is, if your film can’t keep me interested, you fail as a storyteller.” It’s no question that Malick, set decorator Jeanette Scott, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and everybody else involved with The Tree of Life took great pride in their work. The film is stunning – consisting of quick, unsettling shots that are about half the time linked together and focus mainly on a family living in the South in the 1960s (intercut with really thrilling — I say that without sarcasm — shots of natural wonders on our planet and beyond). At first, I completely reveled in what I thought was pure genius. What a smart way to put human beings in perspective, said I to myself, as I compared the relatively insignificant trials of one family with “footage” of various evolutionary developments that must have taken millions of years. Whispered voices asked the tough questions, and I contentedly considered their answers while I gazed at an erupting volcano.

Twenty thousand hours later, I’m still looking at volcanoes and thinking of those same questions, but I’m just not making any progress. The whispered voices continue their inquiries but not loudly enough to drown out the more insistent voices in my head that are telling me to run far, far away.

If The Tree of Life had been a short film, then great. Lots of thumbs up and whatnot. But it was two and a half hours of the same thing — the same feelings, the same comparisons, the same beautiful devices over and over again. The essential human truth that I had been ready to discover right alongside the filmmakers, I now cared about not at all.

The critics whose “get the hell out of there!” voices also overpowered their “why, look, a pretty, thoughtful film!” voices agree that The Tree of Life is heavy-handed. And it seems difficult to imagine, doesn’t it? A film consisting of montage-like sequences during which very little is explained — how can that be heavy-handed? It’s the voices, I think. We get what they’re asking pretty quickly, but they just keep on going. And that nature footage…would five minutes of it have sufficed? Then there are seemingly endless series of vignettes in which the mother (Jessica Chastain) continues to be perfect while the father (Brad Pitt) continues to be a jerk. More volcanoes, some hammerhead sharks, then back to summer in the South when your dad yells at you for slamming the door. Poignant…until it’s put on repeat.

While we certainly need careful filmmakers with an eye for detail and a vision that extends beyond blowing up aliens, a good film need not be one that tortures its audience. All that resentment, fatigue, and frustration that you as a filmmaker are building within your viewers will really start to crowd out whatever other feelings you’re attempting to access.* And that’s something a truly talented artist won’t ignore.

*Unless, wait, those WERE the feelings I was supposed to be feeling…in which case, ignore this entire thing. Brilliant job, The Tree of Life!

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Jeff E. on said:

    I think you’ll find many critics were thrilled with the movie but many, like you, found it pretentious and over-the-top. I initially thought I was in for a big disappointment. The early scenes along with the evolution story, while visually interesting, had no context and weren’t working to form any coherent emotions or thought. For me the beginning of the film occurred once we were truly introduced to the family. Malick is able to create so much emotion with so little dialogue thanks to some fine acting by the entire cast, a great musical score, and gorgeous cinematography. I don’t don’t know how many times I was moved to tears and how close I came to becoming a crying mess in the middle of the Westhampton. You have to be willing to let go and be carried off by Malick’s movies in my experience. If your expectations aren’t being met and that inner voice starts taking over, you don’t have much of a shot at finding any pleasure or meaning in them. Many other reviewers have suggested this movie is very personal, and that you get out of it what you give. Just a warning to those who decide to give it a shot. Go in with an open mind and heart and you may just have a spiritual experience. Go into it demanding to be entertained and I guarantee you won’t.

  2. Jeff – I would agree with you that you should go into the film with an open mind, because you may very well be touched by it all. I wasn’t, but I did try really hard to be. It had me at hello, but lost me at….whatever people say during the middle of conversations.

    (For the record, because I would also agree with you that this would be silly and naive and missing the point of cinema in general, I’m never expecting a film to entertain me, I just want it to hold my interest.)

  3. Susan, you validated my concerns about the film. It definitely seemed high on the pretentious scale, and I, despite the aesthetics of the film, would want something more substantive, especially considering the topic(s) from which the film appears to get most of its drive.

  4. You’ve convinced me to see this film. Beauty and film making are more or less strangers these days. Even if it doesn’t fulfill dramatically, I’ll still have some moments of beauty to reflect back upon. I’d rather they aim high and miss than to not aim at all.

  5. Jeremy on said:

    I think males can identify with many parts of this movie better than females. I found myself almost shocked at how well malick captured emotions related to growing up that I had always thought of as private and personal parts of my development. I’d agree thatthis movie wasn’t for everyone (especially for most of the people in the theater with me, who I think saw “brad Pitt” and nothing else), but I thought this movie was excellent.

  6. Jeff E. on said:

    Wasn’t intending to suggest you were wrong in calling this movie pretentious, Susan.. just giving a tip to people who want to check it out. Early in the movie, I was darned close to being of your opinion and then suddenly I was engrossed.. Seems folks either adore Malick’s movies or totally hate them. Wonder how many other director’s create that kind of division of opinion?

  7. Paul – That’s an interesting point of view, and I think if I read my review, I’d feel the same way! My husband and I have this conversation seriously once a week:

    Me: “I want to see/do X”
    Him: “So and so said it was terrible.”
    Me: “LOOK!! I just want to DECIDE FOR MYSELF.”

    I want to see every movie at least once, I can’t help it!

  8. Like others mentioned I think this is a very personal film and you have to be philosophically minded in order to really be moved by it. Also your remarks about the visuals are really very shortsighted and that is the nicest way I can put it.

    The friend you quoted: “I don’t care how beautiful it is, if your film can’t keep me interested, you fail as a storyteller.” I could and have said the opposite: “I don’t care how great the script is, if your film looks terrible then you fail as a storyteller and filmmaker.”

    Film after all is not radio. Film is seen with the eyes and stories or visual poems like The Tree of Life are capable of telling the story without the use of much dialogue or ludicrous plot twists. The Tree of Life lets you let your mind wander to your own thoughts of the meaning of life, your past, your present and your future and it largely is able to do that because of the astoundingly beautiful and wondrous visuals that hold just long enough to allow for the viewers own thoughts. The Tree of Life is one of the purest forms of filmmaking I’ve seen in a long while and it moved me to tears.

    Also one last thing is that you credited the Set Decorator as being responsible for the visuals/production design instead of Jack Fisk (the Set Decorator’s boss), the Production Designer, who has worked with Terence Malick on every one of his films to create the most beautiful visual landscapes ever recorded to cinema.

    In the end I do respect your opinion but I vehemently disagree with your view of the film. It is your right to review the film as you see fit whether I like it or not.

  9. I saw this movie tonight and couldn’t agree more with this review. This is an existentialistic movie plain and simple. I thought it started out strong and for the first hour was compelling. Overall, the acting was excellent as was the set design. Of course, the cinematography was riveting and some of the best I’ve seen. However, I sincerely disliked the operatic score . It felt hackneyed and pretentious and the director seemed to use it as a crutch to evoke emotion.

    The coming of age story was tender yet realistic as well as nostalgic. It dragged on far too long though. Alas, in the end, I thought the director went to the well one too many times with the earth, sea, fire, and sky motif. Thus draining the movie of any momentum.

    While I appreciated some of the technical aspects of the film, the story line was thin at best and the characters were completely undeveloped. It’s one of those movies you are probably going to either love or hate. For me, I was more in the middle. I just wish it was 30 minutes shorter.

  10. raymond on said:

    @ Jeff E. I am with you completely. I had read many of the reviews, and I was concerned it would be a big disappointment. So, I felt I had to approach this movie with as much openness as I could find. The result was that I was reduced to tears many times by the sensitive depiction of the heartbreak and the joy of human connection. This movie dares to ask the biggest question: does love have any meaning in the vastness of the cosmos.

  11. Jeff E. on said:

    raymond – Happy to see another who enjoyed the movie as I did. I think the answer to the question you posed, at least to us humans, is that in the shadow of infinity, love and beauty are the only things with real meaning… the only things that makes us more than what we are physically.

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