The Tree of Life

If I were to describe this film in one word, that word would be “overrated.”  On further reflection, however, words such as “disjoint,” “muddled,” “confused,” and “pretentious” would suffice as well.  The only problem is that none of those words carry the same weight of disappointment that came upon me after the final twenty-some minute long climax and dénouement had finally croaked its weariness into the comforting blackness of the closing credits.  Then again, perhaps that simply describes Terence Malick’s game face in general.

The film has gotten all kinds of flak and praise over the same quandary that many audiences will silently ask themselves: what, exactly, does the creation of the universe, single-celled organisms, and dinosaurs have to do with an averagely dysfunctional family rearing children in the 50s or Sean Penn gloomily staring out the windows of high-rise office buildings and glass elevators?  And that’s the crux of the film, really.  What do all those things have to do with each other?  The short and simple answer is this: they’re the jumbled mass of what Malick’s incoherently tried to tell a story with—the story in question being an exploration into whatever Malick considers to be the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Given the grand scale of such a story, it’s hard to blame Malick for using such a nonlinear and disjointed method; in fact, that kind of method could expedite the story into something digestible and comprehensible, even if it doesn’t seem immediately relevant.  The problem with such narratives is that it can be difficult to tie everything together into a cohesive package, which is something Malick fails to do.  He presents his audience with concepts and imagery that can only be called “gigantic” or “fantastic,” but doesn’t unify them with much significance.  The audience gets to watch dinosaurs and microbes and space dust whiz about for minutes on end, and gets to feast on images of deep space during divisionary sections, but these segments are literally dropped into the middle of an already jumpy story.  Whispered voice-over narrations dwelling on vague ambiguities or ruminations on grace and materialism are about all that tie the two aspects of the film together.  It’s no surprise that Tree of Life’s reception is mixed.

But I see—or, I think I see—what Malick’s intent was with Tree of Life.  Its stream of images—from the pseudo-biographical elements of a not-so-fictional family, to the dawning of cosmos and life on Earth, to the dream segments interspersed throughout—points to an attempt to transcend the menial confines of narrative storytelling.  In that regard, its success would bank on a number of extremely subjective factors—not unlike the method used extensively (and successfully) by Andrei Tarkovsky decades ago.  The images themselves are gorgeous, beautiful, evocative, fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-words-of-praise-you-will, but that’s about all they are.  Their relation to the film’s characters and, more importantly, their relation to the film’s audience remains detached, distant, and—at best—crudely manipulative.  A wanton reliance upon handheld camera work is probably my biggest complaint with this department, since its attempt at giving the audience a closer, “inside-view” to the family depicted is so hokey and nauseating that it succeeds only in alienating its audience even further.

But that isn’t necessarily what prevents Tree of Life from transcending narrative confines.  If it had gone the route of, say, Zerkalo, and instead reveled in its nonlinear and precise stream of images without regard to specific character or narrative developments, Tree of Life would have been a more commendable effort.  But instead of aiming for a direct and visceral relation to its audience, it stops halfway there; its nonlinearity and its continuous jump-cutting from one scene to the next does a remarkable job at mimicking snapshots of a family’s life, but the method isn’t pervading.  Malick still holds onto an organized narrative, even if he’s done his best to obscure any kind of structure.  It’s as if he gets into the groove of such a method for a few segments and then suddenly abandons it when he feels it’s time to actually try developing the characters—and in surprisingly tame, traditional, and fairly uncreative ways, no less.  The result is a hodgepodge of a film that on one hand, strives to be a transcendent experience, but on the other hand, holds so dearly to traditional narrative techniques that it’s difficult to see it as anything more than some kind of aimless, confused Frankenstein of a story.  Its stream of images isn’t complete, its method isn’t holistic or inclusive, and its approach to editing becomes too predictable for its own good.

A common complaint out there seems to be that Tree of Life has no plot, and is essentially a two-some hour masturbatory spiel about, essentially, loose ends or unresolved issues.  I’d agree with the second half of that, to some extent.  For the kind of “storytelling” Malick seemed to be going for here, I’d argue that Tree of Life had too much plot, too much certainty, too much concreteness—too much obviousness, even.  It’s not just about loose ends, it’s about a relatively normal family and the conflicts and problems that childrearing, death, and general dissatisfaction bring—and one filmmaker’s account of the purpose for it all.  Given how the film plays out, that can only lead me to believe that Malick is among the countless people around who are under the impression that human beings are nothing but machinations of angst who, despite retaining a capacity for understanding and what the film labels “grace,” never reach for it, and are content to remain ugly, angry, adolescent bundles of conflict and despair for most of their lives.  Try to rein in the optimism there, Malick.

But maybe I’m diving too deeply.  Maybe I’m projecting some sort of personal conflict against a mirror.  At least, that’d be the likely criticism of my argument.  Unfortunately, Tree of Life isn’t so abstract as warrant the kind of pseudo-psychological Rorschach-like speculations of audience reciprocity—unlike, say, the aforementioned Zerkalo, or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to say nothing of Lynch’s epic Inland Empire, each of which arguably cover similar themes or utilize similar techniques.  The degree to which Tree of Life demands personal reflection in order to function is limited in comparison specifically because of its inability to be either a functional narrative structure or an abstract flow of expressionistic images.  The halfway point it stops at may work as a stepping-stone of compromise for audiences to keep up with Malick’s vision, but it ultimately serves to sabotage the more poignant, sublime, and penetrating sense of meaning that he was trying to convey.  It’s hard to say whether this was Malick’s intention or not, given his track record.

This said, most of the performances were fantastic.  If Malick was truly trying to portray an unresponsive and angst-ridden youth in the 50s-60s, he managed to get young actor Hunter McCracken to nail it perfectly—likewise with Brad Pitt’s conflicted, hard, and vaguely regretful father figure and his counterbalance in Jessica Chastain’s “mother/wife of ineffectual grace.”  Sean Penn’s performance wasn’t great, but then, he didn’t have a terribly large role in the film, either.  In fact, I’m not even sure what he was doing there, other than to showcase some interesting architecture and some obscure dream sequences.  Maybe I just don’t “get it.”

Similarly, Malick’s grandiose cinematographic eye takes center stage, as it tends to in his works.  The special effects were absolutely mesmerizing, and anyone with an ounce of patience or an interest in CGI won’t even feel how long the somewhat infamous ‘creation’ scenes actually are.  In fact, they’re more interesting than a large part of the drama surrounding the family that forms the bulk of the story.

As I stated earlier, the film’s success banks largely on the subjective relation the audience can form with Malicks’ imagery and drama.  It’s approach to bridging that relation is uneven and inconsistent, which is the prime reason that such an approach typically fails.  In spite of his marginal failure in delivering this, the film remains a visual feast with strong cast performances, so any fans of Malick will likely be pleased.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He writes fiction and blog posts, plays music, and teaches CMA when he isn't working. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW.

3 Responses to The Tree of Life

  1. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Hey, Merri. This is a great review, probably the best semi-negative review of the film I’ve read yet. I just saw this film about a week ago and have found the incredible diversity of opinions and interpretations on it fascinating, but so few have been genuinely enlightening, or been able to penetrate deep enough into either what Malick is up to, or how he succeeds or fails. The last several days I’ve been posting a lot on TTOL board at IMDb, spending most of my time challenging the detractors there to come up with better arguments why they feel Malick fails. Honestly, I’m very unsure of what to think about the film. It’s one of those where my initial impression is that it succeeds as much it fails, but where it succeeds and fails it does so in spectacular, earth-shattering fashion that I’ve been somewhat weary of criticism that seems blind to either extremes.

    What you say about the film lacking unity and justification between the Creation sequence and everything else is a common complaint, but I’m less sure it’s as disconnected as many think. One thing that struck me is that the scene with the dinosaur pressing on the neck of the other is an echo to Jack’s father being under the car, with Jack having the opportunity to kill/hurt him. I also noticed several of Malick’s motifs that he utilizes and (tries to) synthesize throughout. EG, grace VS nature is accompanied by images of the sun and flower, and they join later in the symbol of the sun flower. In general, that seems to be the game Malick is playing, that while he presents these polarized themes, the film itself is more about how, in life, those absolutes of black and white seem to dissolve into grays, into mixtures of both. Some have said, eg, that the mother and father are grace and nature, but I don’t see it that simply, as I don’t think the former is innately selfless/graceful and the latter innately selfish/natural.

    Another thing I think has been grossly overlooked is Malick’s predecessors. You mention Tarkovsky but I don’t really think TTOL is drawing much from Tarkovsky’s theories. What I see more is a combination of the essay film ala Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, and the editing/structural style based around the nested associations of memories ala Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, plus a jump-cut heavy style that is actually quite unique. What I really see Malick trying to do is to break up linear space and time to emphasize that these are, indeed, memorial impressions, not objective truth. In fact, all of the 50s family scenes are shot with that style, which contrast against the heavily linear Creation sequence, with its several long takes of static space an time that create a more distant, fixed, determinate, objective reality of ancient history VS the opposite of these things in the family’s personal history.

    Anyway, I think it’s a film that demands repeat viewings. Right now my intuitive evaluation echoes a lot of your criticism both positive and negative (and I do think the astounding beauty of the film and the power of the Creation sequence alone is almost enough in themselves to recommend it). But at this point I’m inclined to give Malick the benefit of the doubt if only because I feel as if there’s a lot I missed bubbling under the surface. I do get the impression that it’s a work that Malick invested everything of himself as an artist and filmmaker into, and I’m always slow to reject such efforts as disjointed and muddled–much less “pretentious,” as all of those accusations have been leveled against Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and others that we now consider cinematic geniuses. Sometimes us critics just need time to catch up to artists, and I kinda feel Malick is just ahead of us right now, so I don’t want to be quick to express something that’s less about the film and more about my own ignorance of what I missed.

    • Merridian says:

      Hey man, long time no see! How’s life going?

      “Semi-negative” is a good way of putting the review, but it’s probably obvious that I’m not so decided on the matter. I gave it three stars, but that rating (like most ratings I give) is kind of arbitrary. I could have slapped four stars to the exact same review, honestly. I just couldn’t make up my mind and still find myself unable to do so. It’s the kind of film where I keep thinking back to it and saying “it’s good, but…” Rewatching it will probably help. I just don’t want to do that right now…

      I just feel as though he compromised his vision somewhere along the line, or made it intentionally easier for the audience to understand what he was getting at while simultaneously shortcutting anything he could have given to chew on after the credits rolled. It leaves a lot to ponder anyway, but most of that—for me, at least—was more “why did he do this segment this way instead of that way or this other way?” rather than “I wonder what he meant during this sequence?” I can see the merits of arguing that his relative succinctness marks him as a good communicator (and by proxy, a fairly good filmmaker in some respect), but at the same time, what he was communicating here didn’t seem to warrant the method in which he communicated it. I felt like its form was ambitious but its content wasn’t, I guess is what I’m saying.

      I thought the parallelism between the mother/father and grace/nature was kind of hamfisted, really, especially since it was the mother who monologued the introductory dichotomy there at the beginning and their relationship formed the foundation of the film’s plot. To Malick’s credit, he presented it in a fairly nuanced manner—as much as the mother & father represented this supposed dualism, for instance, there remained conflicts embedded in their characters that could also be characterized in such terms of grace and nature. But I’m not sure he really did anything substantial with these developments. It also seemed to me that Malick’s writing left little to “grace” and focused heavily on “reality,” at least in the sense that there didn’t seem to be much happiness depicted in the film in comparison to the general mood of negativity or uneasiness. And if we take into account the notion that the 50s segments were all depicted as the memories of the son (I’d assume, given that he’s the focus of the “present era” snapshots), then all the more reason to question the necessity or validity of Malick’s “grace” in the first place. The film seemed to present a scenario of self-fulfilling despair. Maybe that’s the point. I can’t tell, really.

  2. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Life’s going good. I’ve mostly traded in the time I was spending on EGF and elsewhere for reading–poetry, criticism, and a smattering of stuff online. Finally finished the work of William Blake, and I’m still feeling a bit shaken up. Amazing stuff. I’m on The Aeneid (Ahl translation) now and also re-reading through Vendler’s book on Keats’ Odes and Cleanth Brooks’ Understanding Poetry tome.

    Anyway, I’m with you on the “needs rewatch, but I don’t want to now” feeling. I don’t think Malick compromised anything as TTOL is basically in line with his methods in his previous films with the exception of The Creation. It’s also probably the effect of all the New Criticism I’ve been reading lately, but I’ve been slowly coming to a somewhat consolidated opinion on the form (“why did he do this that way”) VS content/meaning issue, and I’m starting to agree with Brooks when he argues why we should never abstract meaning from art and analyze it as we would philosophy or science. I don’t think any content/meaning is innately suited to any particular mode of expression except in particular abstracts… I’d probably need my typical WoT to explain what I’m talking about, but the short of it is that I don’t think there’s anything in Malick’s content/meaning that would make his “ambitious” formal choices wrong. I’m more interested in what those formal choices bring to the content–how it creates a different experience compared to others that have tackled similar subjects/themes.

    To me, your last paragraph actually sums up much of what I liked about the film. One thing I’ve been stressing on IMDb is that Malick’s voiceovers are always written from the perspective of characters, dramatic personae, and not Malick himself. It’s one thing that finally struck me about his general mode of filmmaking in that we can’t confuse the voiceovers for HIM. They represent the attempts by his characters to figure out their reality. Yet the reality he presents is almost infinitely more indifferent, complex, ambiguous… never really fitting into the simplistic ideals his characters seem to want it to. The nature/grace motif is just one example, and I think Malick’s use of the sunflower symbol is indicative of how he sees the “both in one” essence of such polarizing concepts.

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