The Tree of Life

tn_treeoflife“You know what? I’ve never actually seen a Terrence Malick movie,” I admitted, embarrassed.

WHAT?!” my film buff buddy blurted out. “And you see every crappy movie that comes out!”

“That’s not true!” I defended. “I haven’t seen Pirates of the Caribbean 4 yet.”

He said he was kidding, but his disgust was clearly genuine. And I mean, he’s kind of right. It is true that I have seen all of the FAST AND THE FURIOUSes more than once. I’ve seen all the STEP UPs, FRIDAY THE 13THs, NIGHTMAREs ON ELM STREET, TRANSPORTERs, UNDISPUTEDs, BESTs OF THE BEST, SUBSTITUTEs, WALKING TALLs, the Chucky pictures, most of the Brian Trenchard-Smiths, most of the Isaac Florentines. And yet I never got off my ass and saw BADLANDS. Which would be fine if I didn’t like that kind of thing, but I bet I probly would. I’ve been meaning to see those movies, and there’s only a handful of them, I could watch them all in a day if I wanted to. But I always get more excited about some other movie I find with a guy on a motorcycle on the cover. I got no excuse.

In my defense though, I haven’t seen the last two SAW movies.

I’ll see all the Malicks, I promise. But I wanted to lay all my cards on the table here just so you know this review is not coming from one of the three places that I imagine most of the TREE OF LIFE reviews must be coming from:

1. Passionate worshipfulness – Terrence Malick is my god
2. Socially prescribed respectfulness – I have read that Terrence Malick is my god
3. Scornful anti-elitist elitism – I don’t like it but they like it and it makes me angry I bet they don’t really like it fuck you emperor’s new clothes. If I don’t ‘get’ it NOBODY will ‘get’ it!

Mine is different, mine is more just lazy ignorance.

THE TREE OF LIFE is the story of– well, “story” might be overselling it. It’s the movie of a guy briefly played by Sean Penn remembering events from his childhood, mostly surrounding the death of his brother and his relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Also it depicts outer space, the beginning of life on earth (cells dividing, something bubbling up out of the tar, dinosaurs hanging out in a quiet Redwood forest), stuff like that. It’s pretty different from OCEAN’S 13 and THE MEXICAN in my opinion. Not sure if you saw the sign in the lobby.

mp_treeoflifeMost of the movie is normal stuff though, the childhood in Texas, a family photo album come to life. The cinematographer is that guy Emmanuel Lubezki, who did CHILDREN OF MEN. I gotta mention him because it seems like he’s a huge part of what makes this movie work. The imagery is beautiful and vivid (this guy’s memories are clearer than my eyesight, I think) and without generally doing POV shots they still manage to capture the feeling of being the kid there – lots of closeups, lots of child’s-eye-level shots looking up at adults, at trees, at clouds, even at random things like curtains blowing in the wind, things that look fascinating to a toddler.

I’ve never seen a movie that so distinctly captures the feeling of childhood. And it starts with babies. You see this little lump interacting with his baby brother, as if for the first time – how the fuck did they get that on film? That had to be real. Those weren’t puppets. These scenes are quick, simple, unclear. Little fragments of memories. Playing with mom, laughing, staring at things. As the kids get older the scenes get longer and more involved, mimicking their growing understanding of the world around them (or the specificness of the memories we retain from that age). But they still don’t understand everything. There’s a scene where the kids watch some guys getting arrested. We never see or hear what that was about, just as a kid wouldn’t know or have it explained at the time, and as an adult they might have confused flashes of memories about it with no context, just things they saw that scared and confused them.

At first dad seems mythic, a handsome guy with a tie and a big wedding ring, coming home and being welcomed by the kids. As the movie goes on we, along with the boys, begin to see his flaws. He starts to seem kind of abusive. He has old fashioned rules – they get in trouble for not calling him sir, for saying “yeah” instead of “yes,” or calling him “dad” instead of “father.” He’s a real asshole but the movie is too true to become just a story about an asshole dad and shitty husband and how the family overcomes him. Yeah, he’s that but he’s more than that, he’s a complicated figure. He kisses his sons, he plays music with them, he has regrets, he overreacts about closing the screen door too loud. He’s a human. A dad. Er, a father I mean. Sorry sir.

The kids are so natural and real it’s incredible. They don’t have snappy dialogue, they don’t pose. They mumble and look at their feet and get distracted by things. They hop around and flop their bodies in weird ways and randomly hit each other and just play around like kids do, off in their own world. As they get older there’s a part all about a boy’s need to destroy things. A pack of these little guys run around together banging sticks against walls, throwing rocks through windows, using firecrackers and toy rockets to terrorize the local wildlife. I swear, it’s like a nature documentary about the habits of the human boy. (Everything but burning bugs with magnifying glasses. Why do they give those things to kids? What do they think they’ll do with them? Am I right fellas?)

When the brothers fight a little bit, I mean it’s not like GUMMO but it seems like they could really get hurt at any time. I thought shit, how was he allowed to film this?

On the other side of things there’s the outer space portion of this movie, the beautiful, hypnotic movements of clouds and stars and nebulas and molecules and what have you. They look somehow different from what you see in other movies today. Nothing against computers, which were definitely at least used on the dinosaurs and which can do some beautiful things, but this stuff looked too good to be computers. I wondered if some of it was real. I don’t know but I read that they got Douglas Trumbull of 2001 fame to do non-computer effects and also the guys who worked on THE FOUNTAIN who film chemical reactions and pouring milk through funnels and shit like that to create amazing imagery. Good job fellas.

All that space shit, personally I think it might be going too far, it seems kind of ridiculous and unnecessary to me. And also I loved it. It’s a movie that reaches real fuckin far and if it only grabs some of the grapes then, well, that’s still some grapes. It’s maybe more messy, but the extreme emotional power of this thing probly edges out DRIVE to make it the best movie I’ve seen this year. So get your legal team ready, TREE OF LIFE.

I’m sure there are many things to discuss, many different interpretations of symbolism and subtext and what it’s all saying about life, love, family, religion, memory, aging, death, loss, whatever. Alot of the whispered narration seems to be talking directly to God – or is it to Mom? Just the topic of why Malick connects this intimate, subjective depiction of growing up to the epic, 2001-esque God’s-eye-view of time and the universe I’m sure has and will continue to inspire many conversations ranging from deep and insightful to idiotic nonsense. It obviously lends itself to all kinds of readings and analysis. But my reaction to the movie wasn’t at all intellectual. It was purely emotional and personal. The details didn’t match my childhood or my present, but the feelings were so universal and so lucid it just hit me in the gut like a sockful of quarters.

It reminded me what it felt like to be young, what the world looked like. It seriously made me remember weird things from my childhood that I had forgotten for decades. And it just snuck up on me in a way a movie never really has before. Let’s keep this on the down low, but to be frankly honest the fuckin thing made me cry like a bitch. Not even anything specific either, it was a sad part of the movie but it wasn’t just that, it was an overwhelming backlog of emotions just pouring out. And at the end it gets a little VALHALLA RISING and I honestly couldn’t tell you what literally is going on there. But that didn’t push me away, it pulled me into an even more primal state of vulnerable bitchitude. The boy is chasing the young version of his brother, he’s an adult embracing the young version of his father (who he’s now probly older than)… I’m thinking about how you can never return to things you once had, when things seemed so simple. I’m thinking about getting old and about comparing myself to my father and about the people we have in our lives that are no longer there, the stages of life that end and never come back… it’s potent shit.

Apparently there was a whole debate about this movie and whether critics are jerks for recommending a movie even though it’s “boring.” Well, count me as one THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS fan who didn’t think this was boring at all. Early in the movie I was ready for it to be kind of a chore to get through. In the final stretch I was looking at the time hoping it was almost over, but that was because it was too intense and I needed to escape.

I doubt many or any of you had or will have that intense of a reaction to the thing. I can’t even entirely explain it. Part of it obviously is personal, where I was at psychologically at that moment in my life when I watched it, what parts of my life it made me think about, all that. But I don’t think any ordinary mild-mannered movie could knock something loose like that. It took some grade-A uncut filmatism.

In my opinion this one is way better than JURASSIC PARK III. Just my 2 cents.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 at 2:05 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

69 Responses to “The Tree of Life”

  1. Pretty much exactly how this movie made me feel. I took an 8 mile walk after seeing it, (just thinking, I don’t think I wrote any Oscar winning rap songs during that time). It was nothing at all like my childhood, but hit me real. It’s by far my favorite movie of the year. Number two is probably Final Destination 5.

  2. Yeah, totally agree. I think this film is one of the elegant and eloquent films I’ve seen. But it sure is divisive. There’s been an argument raging across the social media sites (i.e. Facebook) with friends about the merits of this film, with only a couple of us actually enjoying it, some somewhat int he middle, and it seems the majority wanting to run Malick out of town tarred and feathered, even though he doesn’t live in our town. Polarising.

  3. Sorry Sir, I mean “Yes, I totally agree.”

  4. “All that space shit, personally I think it might be going too far, it seems kind of ridiculous and unnecessary to me. And also I loved it.”

    I will second this sentiment. The grand cosmic story makes the film less tightly controlled than the other Malick films I’ve seen. Including dinosaurs and the big bang made the film a little sloppier, but damnit if it still didn’t win me over. Any blemishes the film had were mostly because it was so ridiculously ambitious at times. However, as much as I love dinosaurs (who doesn’t), the heart of the film is absolutely the coming of age story in Texas. By mashing these two elements up, the film comes up with something that’s truly unique. This review pretty much nailed this movie. Thanks, Vern.

  5. This is by far my favorite Malick film. I feel that his other films get in the way of the narrative / story (or that the film making gets in the way of the narrative / story) but Tree of Life works completely as an emotional experience. It’s less of a film and more of a record to me. His other films, to me, were interesting failures that didn’t know if they wanted to tell a story or be all Malick-y and shit.

    I find it hard to really talk about Tree of Life too much. It made me feel stuff and was never boring and it has stuck with me since I saw it back in July.

  6. DAYS OF HEAVEN is an “interesting failure”? Really? How so?

  7. This writing is the first thing that makes me really want to see this movie. Other reviews, ad campaigns, word-of-mouth, Malick’s other films … I thought I wouldn’t be missing out. Now I can’t wait for an awards-season reissue. Thanks, Vern.

    Magnifying glasses + boys can = burnt leaves and spared bugs. Just sayin.

  8. This review is so identical to my reaction that it’s almost scary.

  9. Personally, I would take carpenter ants and put them in the freezer. Then put them in the microwave for a second or two. If it wasn’t too long in the freezer, and it wasn’t too long in the microwave, they would come back to life.

    No, I didn’t turn into a serial killer, but there’s still time.

  10. I really wanna see this, especially since i’m in the mood for something that’ll knock me on my ass philosphically and emotionally. Problem is, the only Malick film I’ve seen is the The Thin Red Line and that was the biggest fuckin chore I’ve ever had to sit through. I saw it opening weekend (I remember because it was between that and Patch Adams and, chore and all, I still feel like I made the right decision that day) and about 30 mins in I knew I was in trouble. Maybe I didn’t know what kind of film I was getting into, and i only vaguely remember it, but it felt like it just meandered around and didnt really have a story to tell.

    After this review, I guess Malick is more interested in telling stories that hit viewers on an emotional level rather than telling a story that is coherent? The numerous big name cameos threw me off too. Having a George Clooney or a John Travolta pop up every 5 mins only to leave and never to be heard from again, was horribly distracting. This is also one of the few movies where it seemed like all the main characters looked the same. I swear, Jim Caviezel played all the main characters.

    I have to say, that was my worst movie going experience ever. It literally felt like it was 5 hours long. Judging by the previews, Malick’s films after that one look eerily similar (especially The New World). I will see this one though. Too many people, who’s opinions I respect, have loved this thing for me not to give it a shot. If I end up loving Tree of Life it will be one of the all time director turnarounds for me.

  11. I agree with Inspector Li. Every review Ive read still did not grab my attention, but Vern’s sure did. I actually searched to see if it was still playing anywhere in theaters. My hope is it gets back out there again because I don’t want to miss it if I can see it on a big screen in total darkness.

  12. Man, this review made me cry.

  13. This is the best review of Tree of Life I`ve read. Well done.

  14. Easily my favorite film of the year. I saw it 4 times in the theater. But then, I’m a Malick junkie. That’s probably why I keep ripping him off:


  15. wow, amazing review Vern

    you know what? I’m I’m gonna buy this sucker today, I think I need to see this

  16. OH FUCK ME.

    Dammit, even Vern thought this one was great. (Nothing meant there except that Vern and mainstream critics often don’t seem to agree on this sort of stuff. Case in point, “Waking Life”. Not that I’m making any comparisons between “Waking Life” and “Tree of Life”. I can’t, I haven’t seen either of them. Speaking of…)

    For those who haven’t read “Potpourri 3” recently, I drove about forty miles to see this film, only to find out that the arts cinema it was at was sold out. (The first time I’ve ever seen that happen, by the way.) That was my only day off, so I couldn’t go back to see it again. I get the feeling that this one is like “Lost in Translation”. It’s the kind of film you HAVE to see on the big screen to properly appreciate it. And I couldn’t. Damn it.

  17. Days of Heaven doesn’t work for me. I can totally appreciate it for so many reasons. It just didn’t resonate with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen it, so I might think differently now.

    I’m unsure if Tree of Life deals with specific character types and ideas that appeal to me directly or if it’s more general and appeals to me because of that. I don’t know. What I do know is that it works for me. Shit, I still feel the impact of that movie months after seeing it. It’s really good.

    None of Malick’s other films did that for me. I just remember seeing a Malick film and thinking “Fuck, he sure shoots scenes of fields of corn / wheat / trees beautifully. It’s a real shame he had people talking to fuck up everything else.” In Tree of Life I actually cared about the characters and, more importantly, felt like the movie was speaking directly to me. Not to sound like a self centered asshole but part of Tree of Life’s power for me was that it felt tailor fitted to me. All of Malick’s other movies just dealt with people I didn’t care about.

    I hope that makes sense and was respectful, Mr Cutestory.

  18. I’ve only seen three of Malick’s movies (Days of Heaven, The New World, and Tree of Life), but I’ve always felt like New World gets the short end of the stick. It’s probably my favorite of his films. I think it doesn’t a great job of marrying history and myth, and by god does it have a fantastic opening: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFkyAD9gS6g

  19. There’s a lot to like about the New World. I think Malick uses music extremely well and has a great ear for what fits in his scenes.

    I especially like how in The New World the opening music is repeated at the end and a lot of the images play back to the opening scenes. There’s a lot of parallels between the two: sun rising in the beginning with the sun setting, scenes of boats reaching their destination compared to boats at a dock getting loaded, and whatnot. It implies that death is a new journey and plays it up with the music and everything else.

    That’s all great, too. Seriously, great. I just didn’t care about the characters and for a movie that spends so much time and focus on the characters it just doesn’t work for me. I appreciate it and respect it, but I wish I could embrace it.

  20. Have you guys seen the recent footage of the “reclusive” Malick directing Christian Bale?

    Also, anyone ever get a chance to see LANTON MILLS? It’s Malick’s first film, a short about cow-boys who decide to rob a bank. It stars Harry Dean Stanton and Malick himself (who stops randomly and says, “It’s time to do my big bird dance.” before running around and clucking). It’s only allowed to be viewed at the American Film Institute by its students. God, I’d love to see that film.

  21. I saw Tree of Life in the theater and I was telling my brother about it which provoked a five hour conversation between us about our own childhood. Unfortunately I can’t get him to watch it because he doesn’t think he can handle the intensity which I suppose is valid.

    I’m suprised to know that this had the same effect on someone watching it on DVD (Vern – I’m assuming that’s what you saw it on) because the begining was pretty slow and I figured someone watching it at home might lose interest in the first ten fifteen minutes or so and turn it off or keep it on as background noise while they did something else.

    The ending was one of the most beautiful things about the movie. Like the begining where it showed the birth of the universe, I saw the ending as the end of time where everybody gets to come together in the afterlife. It struck me as so joyful it almost made me break down.

  22. It might be obvious to everyone, but the “space shit” is a reference to the book of Job (quoted at the beginning and by the priest during the church service). The first half of the film takes its narrative structure from Job: tragedy strikes a “good” person, friends come to console that person, that person asks God why it happened, and God answers with a question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” God then goes through all of these natural wonders (including references to Leviathan and Behemoth, who are thought by many to be dinosaurs) to show that our problems are simultaneously small in the grand scheme of things, but also that God is in absolute control of everything, no matter how miniscule. This would be a fascinating double feature with A SERIOUS MAN to see two very different interpretations of the same book.

  23. I see your point, Mr. Casey. Thanks for the clarification.

    I know people who had some sort of religious experience watching ENTER THE VOID, but, like your experience with DAYS OF HEAVEN, it didn’t resonate in any meaningful way with me, even though I can appreciate the technique.

  24. F.Y.I. Speaking as a fan of the Saw movies the last two aren’t really worth watching. The traps are okay, but overall… I would say you don’t need to go out of your way to watch them. Badlands on the otherhand…

  25. What are you talkin’ about Hamslime? Saw VI is on par with the original.

    Saw II
    Saw / Saw VI
    Saw IV
    Saw V
    Saw III
    Saw 3D

  26. *I thought the first three got progressively better. The fourth wasn’t bad, but by the time they got to the fith one it started to loose steam with me. The last two felt and looked like bloody versions of soap operas.

    The series as a whole could have been amazing. The chick from the first one, after going through that hell responded with, “he helped me” sets it up with a great premise for a movie that none of the movies really exploited like they should have. Still, I enjoyed the series for the most part though I think it’s one of those franchises that has a lot of untapped ideas that would make for a great remake/reboot.

    *We can continue this in the Saw thread if you wish. As much as I loved Tree of Life, I feel bad about talking about Saw (or any other movie for that matter) here.*

  27. I really recommend The New World, Vern. It is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the past decade (but then, I fall under the “Malick is my god” demographic).

    The New World is much more narrative driven than Tree of Life. In fact, Malick goes through more plot in that 150 minute film than most filmmakers could in a 6-part mini-series. And it’s absolutely brilliant.

    How on earth anyone can find his films boring are completely beyond me.

  28. David Lambert, I’m dying to see Lanton Mills. Doubt that I ever will, though. Malick did a bit of acting in Badlands as well.

    Oh, where can I find this footage of Malick directing Christian Bale?

  29. My children are leaving the baby/toddler stages and becoming little boys. I’m already constantly thinking about how I’ll never hold their baby faces close to mine or kiss little fingers and toes. I’ve lost many family members over the last few years whose absences make me rethink my childhood and why I remember only the strangest of things about these people’s presence in my life. I find myself looking at young versions of me in pictures, thinking of them as entirely different people while at the same time feeling like I am only a ten-year-old girl instead of a woman close to her mid-thirties.

    Yeah, I think that as much as I may love “Tree of Life”, it would be too much for me to handle at this time in my life.

    But “Badlands” is wonderful. It needs a review like this one, Vern.

  30. ThomasCrown, to chip away at your barriers: “Chore” is exactly how I felt about Thin Red Line too. Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The New World all went down much better (though they’ve got their indulgent moments for sure.) So hey – you’re already over the hump.

  31. ok, story time guys, technically I have seen a Terrence Malick movie, in theaters no less, but I was 9 years old at the time and I remember pretty much nothing about it

    I know that sounds strange, but let me explain, my parents took me to see Saving Private Ryan when it was in theaters and we were of course floored (I still maintain it’s one of the best war movies ever made), The Thin Red Line came out around the same time (less than a year later) and I guess my parents were expecting another movie along the lines of Saving Private Ryan, boy were we wrong

    literally the only thing I remember about the movie is in the middle of a battle sequence the movie cuts to a shot of a baby bird hatching out of it’s egg, I think I was just painfully bored the whole time, I don’t think my parents were that enthused either because they’ve never talked about the movie since

    it’s weird not remembering anything about the movie though, I mean I remember a lot about other movies I saw around that time, but that one’s a blank, for all I know I might have fell asleep or something

    I’m sure watching it again would probably jog my memory though

    on a side note, my parents always treated war movies as kind of like history lessons, I saw Platoon and Full Metal Jacket when I was like 10 I think because I was curious about the Vietnam war, now Full Metal Jacket was an absolutely unforgettable experience

  32. Thanks, David. Good to see Bale and Malick back together again. Bale was so damn good in The New World. I think John Rolfe is my favourite character he’s ever played.

    As for Malick, I’m pretty sure he has a direct line to God or something. When he’s directing, he probably just goes “Yo, Big G, how about some clouds in the background over there? Maybe a bit of lightning too. Cool. Oh, and make those birds over there fly real pretty when we start rolling.”

    And then God’s like “Okay, Terry, whatever you need, man.”

    And then Malick’s like “Thanks, bud. By the way, what size lens do you think I should use?”

    Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s how it happens.

  33. BADLANDS!!!

  34. Thanks, Vern.
    Malick has been my favorite filmatist for a long time.
    But watching this one, I couldn’t really tell–I don’t know, it’s not like a movie to me, I don’t know what it is, but it’s damn good. I know that life’s a different place for it.
    I hope those of you who thought THE THIN RED LINE was dull will give it another chance. It will be better the second time.

  35. A review written from the point of lazy ignorance, a view I can get behind. I’ve been questioned about how I’ve lived so long without seeing certain films before. Fuck ’em, I’ll watch what I want.

  36. THE THIN RED LINE didn’t get any better for me the second time I saw it, even when I knew from the start that Jim Jesus and the other guy were two different dudes.

  37. Excellent review, definitely comes from an interesting perspective.

    And I totally get the whole “almost unexplainable intense emotional response” thing. I totally got that with The Fountain and it just chewed me up and spit me out and it was so intense, and I attribute a lot of it to my own state of mind at the time and what was going on in my life when I saw it. That’s the beauty of art. Moving pictures. Talkies.

  38. I love it when I have an “almost unexplainable intense emotional response” to a movie, but it`s usually quite embarresing. I think I`ve had 2 over the last 4 years. The latest was Toy Story 3, which I saw a month after a very good friend´s suicide. I almost had a complete emotional breakdown during the last 20 minutes, in a room filled with small kids. When we left the cinema, my very confused date tried to comfort me; “yeah, I guess it was really sad.. It really made me think of how I treated my toys when I were a kid.. I miss some of them too.. poor fucking toys…”

    The other one were really weird. I was in Cannes in 2008 and really wanted to watch the world premiere of Synecdoche NY. Unfortunately, I didn`t have the pass for screening like my friends, who managed to get in before me, but I kept waiting outside the cinema, just in case.. And then some guard came running and told us that they had an extra screening for the press in a big tent behind the cinema. A BIG tent with hundreds, maybe thousands of seats. But I think there were only 10 people in there actually watching it. Anyway, I completely lost it during the last 40 minutes of the movie, and when I looked around, everybody else were crying too. When I left the cinema, I were kind of in a state of shock. I`d never reacted that strongly to a movie before, not for that long anyway. And then the audience started pouring out of the main-cinema and I found my friends and were like “holy shit, guys, oh my god, holy shit!” And they nodded and were all;
    “yeah… what the fuck has this dude been smoking, it didn`t make sense at all. Unbelievable.”
    “What? Weren`t people crying, or..?”
    “Crying? Why? It wasn`t THAT bad. Well, the director sort of looked sad after the movie, when nobody applauded it, but.. Well, the bit with the green shit was funny.. Did you like it?”
    “Eh.. sure.. kind of.. I guess..”

  39. This is the best review of this film I’ve read. Your personal response to it validates the film as art better than any “serious” critique or academic evaluation trying to hammer what Malick was “saying” and its “importance.”

  40. That’s why subjective film reviews will always be better than “objective” ones, Brandon.

    I had an “almost unexplainable intense emotional response” watching 127 Hours. That one really hit me hard. Again, that response had as much to do with me as it did with the film itself.

    God, watching something like The Tree of Life just makes me realise how much I love movies. And I love how Malick’s work is deeply cinematic to the core. Ingmar Bergman talked about how hypnotic cinema could be. Terrence Malick is the perfect example.

  41. Personally I loved “The Thin Red Line”. I loved the experience of watching it. And I couldn’t tell you why. Yes, it’s beautifully shot, but there have been a lot of beautifully shot films that I’ve hated. All I can say is that it “got” me. And that was supposed to be one of Malick’s weaker, more divisive movies (hell, it’s divisive enough just among the commentators on this website).

    Don’t think any film has ever had me bawling like a baby, but a few I can think of have hit me square in the guts: “Brick”, “Crouching Tiger…”, “American Beauty” (yeah, I know it gets stick NOW, but you gotta think of the impact it had when it was first out), “Elephant”, “Kairo”, “Inception” (yeah, the bit with Leo saying goodbye to his wife gets me every single time), “Night of the Living Dead”, and most recently “Third Star”. Ok, that last one ALMOST had me bawling like a baby.

    The film that hits me the hardest, every single time I see it, though, is the original classic, “Citizen Kane”. Seriously, if you can watch that scene at the end with the furnace and not tear up a bit, I don’t know how the heck you manage it.

  42. I’ve finally found the one element that was missing from my appreciation of Tree of Life: Vern’s review. It is the only Malick movie I’ve ever liked. He’s not my style, that’s okay. (Had the same experience as ThomasCrown with Thin Red Line).

    So I liked Tree of Life. I’m up for some crazy arthouse shit sometimes and I loved how Malick embraced the craziness. LOVE that he did the beginning of time and it looks phenomenal on Blu ray.

    So here’s where Vern took me to the next level. As abstract as the film is, I still saw it as the circle of violence. The scenes are impressionistic but it’s still about a loser father who’s unsuccessful at work so he takes it out on his kids, so his kid picks up violent tendencies too and acts out. And the beginning of time was how the universe was forged in violent explosions and the dinosaurs were violent. So we’re all born into violence and we become violent. That is the tree of life.

    Thanks to Vern, I see where that aspect fits into a broader whole. And Saw V rules, and the people in Days of Heaven talk weird.

  43. Fred, I think Malick is showing the process of man (and beast) transcending violence (and/or selfish behavior). The dinosaur scene seems to be a dramatization of the first act of kindness or mercy (the special effects supervisor on the film confirmed as much in an interview). What’s interesting is that the kid doesn’t really begin acting violently until his sexuality begins to develop (note the sequence of events: He begins spying on the neighborhood woman, he starts breaking windows and rocketing frogs, one of the kids tempts him into some unspecified act (paraphrasing the serpent in the Garden of Eden), and then he’s breaking into the woman’s house and stealing her slip). I’m not sure what Malick is trying to say here, exactly, outside of how sex and violence are intertwined in many ways, although I don’t think he’s being so puritanical as to suggest that sex equals violence or corruption. As for the father being a loser…I don’t know. The more times I’ve seen the film, the more I sympathize with the father, even though he’s kind of a pent-up fuck-up. It’s interesting that the kids don’t really start acting up until the father is gone on his trip. Malick shows that the dad might be wrong in his approach, but dammit, he gets results. The mother’s approach is shown as flawed in its own way, as she has no control of the kids on her own. A brilliant touch: As the son’s voiceover talks about how the dad is a mean hypocrite, the imagery is the dad playing lovingly with his sons.

  44. The Thin Red Line fucked with me as a young teenager the first time I saw it. In particular, Woody Harrelsons “I blew up my butt” scene has really stuck with me all these years later.

  45. Yeah, I went into THE THIN RED LINE as a 16yr old expecting to hate it because of how much I loved SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (you know how teenagers are, if you like one thing, you must automatically hate something else that is similar but different). From the scene with the villagers singing the Melanesian hymns (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObqoRHlswcE) I was hooked. It was akin to a religious experience and the closest (at that time) that I came to crying during a movie. I was speechless coming out of it, which is how I am at the end of every new Malick film. They need time to digest. Looking back, it might be the most flawed of his films, or perhaps no further viewings can improve on that initial impression.

    I’ve been lucky enough to see all of Malick’s films on the big screen with real prints (a few months ago I went to a screening of BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN at the New Beverly. DAYS OF HEAVEN is just a totally different experience in a theater).

  46. “When the brothers fight a little bit, I mean it’s not like GUMMO but it seems like they could really get hurt at any time.”

    OH MY GOD EXACTLY. During all the scenes when the boys were doing things out of adult supervision, I had this feeling of doom hanging over the whole enterprise, as if there was going to be tragedy and fatality and I really didn’t want to sit there and watch it but I had no choice. A lot of the movie passed that way for me, with the feeling of impending awfulness. I wonder if it was just adulthood hanging over it?

  47. Very good point about the father’s effective parenting. Perhaps it’s also a matter of Brad Pitt being not quite good enough an actor to convey the layers, so I was left with the superficial impression. I mean, I love the guy, he’s great in some roles (Fight Club, Basterds) but often he’s just wide-eyed broody Brad Pitt. I actually had the idea that maybe the point was that all kid see their dads as movie stars, but I could never get past “movie star Brad Pitt.” Grease up his hair, put glasses on him, he’s still not a 50s dad. But, it takes a Brad Pitt to get a Tree of Life made, and like I said as a previous Malick hater, I was able to enjoy the impressionistic style regardless of the content. And Sean Penn as a depressed mopy serious guy is nothing new either, even if he finds his inner child on the beach. I

    I thought the dinosaurs looked fake too, but I thought how great is that that serious abstract art film has CGI as bad as the Hollywood Jurassic Park knockoffs? Meta.

  48. Wait, wouldn’t multiple Fast and the Furiouses be Fast and Furiae? Furii?

  49. I thought Brad Pitt was tremendous as the father. I mean, he was definitely layered. The threat of violence was underneath the surface, sometimes controlled, sometimes not as much. He could also be tender as well, loved his family, was just a disciplinarian (probably not all that different from many of our fathers). I didn’t think about Pitt the actor once during the movie. I don’t think he was that broody, either. I mean, he’s been broody before. Not always speaking doesn’t necessarily equal broody. Just an interesting guy. I’m not from the 50s so I can’t comment on whether he’s like a 50s dad exactly, but the character seemed entirely real. And multi-layered. He’s not exactly Fred Macmurray. I’d love to see him nominated for something. Pitt, not Macmurray.

  50. Pitt’s choice in material has been phenomenal over the past few years. Tree of Life, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Inglourious Basterds… All masterpieces, as far as I’m concerned.

    And even back in the ’90s he was in great films like 12 Monkeys, Interview with the Vampire, True Romance, Seven and Fight Club. The man has some pretty good taste in movies.

  51. Vern, BADLANDS is fantastic.

  52. Fast Five was awesome!

  53. Thank you for this review Vern, you summed up my feelings exactly about this movie. I seriously felt like Tree of Life captured perfectly what it was like to grow up as a boy in America – afraid of your father, adoring your mother, getting into trouble, being out right before sundown, hearing those nature sounds of indeterminate bugs and indeterminate birds, the weird fuzzy memories where you remember an event but not exactly what happened or what it meant. It’s a ballsy, crazy film that you can’t believe ever got the green light.

    ThomasCrown- My first experience with Malick too was The Thin Red Line, and I felt the exact same way you did, I hated almost every minute of it. I may have to go back and watch it now.

  54. I love BADLANDS too, and can’t wait to get my hands on the Blu-Ray coming out Tuesday. Criterion did such an excellent job on TTRL and DAYS OF HEAVEN, this will make a perfect trifecta.

  55. I loved BADLANDS, but could not stand THE THIN RED LINE in the cinema. What a bunch of bullshit.

  56. So Malick’s Knight of Cups came out on Blu Ray last week. I bought it blind, because it’s cheap and it’s Malick and right now I have access to weed. And so of course it turns out to be a huge disappointment. It’s uninvolving and dull (I fell asleep so many times that when i rewatched it the next day I didn’t remember half the scenes), but worst of all it’s not even beautiful – there’s a few great shots that look like something out of a music video or a Tarsem movie, but I swear 95% of it is shot in this headache-inducing fisheye lens that give it a distinctive “look” but mostly just makes you think your TV is set to the wrong aspect ratio.

    Visuals aside, the movie still fails on a content level – it plays like a Youtube parody of Tree of Life and all the other Malicks – a silent character in a suit walks endlessly through nature, vague whispered narration where you don’t understand who’s talking or who they’re talking to, beautiful classical music, star cameos where you get the vibe most of their role ended up on the cutting room floor (honestly I didn’t notice Michael Wincott until my 2nd viewing, and I had no idea Joel Kinnaman was even in this despite IMDB saying he had a 17 page monologue that was cut). I get what they’re going for – I GUESS it’s like Nine(?) or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, with Christian Bale remembering his relationships with an endless parade of beautiful women. I can get behind that. I’m even OK with the idea that he’s not even remembering important things like sex or how they met or how they broke up. I can relate, some of my biggest memories of exes are entirely inconsequential, minor things. But if I’m going to make a 2 hour movie about these memories there better be something interesting or beautiful going on, which this movie is sorely lacking.

    The experience was so disappointing I actually watched Tree of Life the next day to make sure the Emperor had on some clothes. And I’m happy to report it’s still a masterpiece. It’s amazing that it’s pretty much the same movie as Knight of Cups but simply better on every level. The shot composition, the editing, the acting, the “plot”. Everything works here and it actually made me realize this is ironically the ultimate “turn off your brain” movie, not Transformers or whatever. It’s a movie appealing entirely to the heart and the emotions, not the brain. There’s no point in dissecting what this shot means or what this scene represents; your role as a viewer is to just sit back and get swept up in the movie and how it makes you feel. Now that Malick’s last two movies have been considered failures/disappointments, I really hope he has another Tree of Life still in him.

  57. Funny thing, since I’ve never been a fan of Malick or his style, I loved Knight of Cups. I just got a kick out of seeing malick do his thing in LA, seeing studio lots as studio lots, the isolated screenwriter feeling lonely in them. I think he made the city look as beautiful as his nature stuff. And by movie seven I appreciate that plotless wandering is his thing.

    I agree Tree of Life is his unadulterated masterpiece but I think personally Knight of Cups speaks to me more as a Los Angelean in the industry.

  58. did you ever get around to watching more Malick movies?

    This is a great review

  59. Does anyone else feel like Malick’s last three movies are going back to the Tree of Life “well” with increasingly diminishing results? All three of them, I think, have their moments, but, geez, they become fewer and fewer as each one comes out. In fact, Song to Song is the first time I’ve regretted the time I spent watching a Malick movie.

    Maybe I’m just not deep enough to get it, but I feel like he has been treading water since the phenomenal Tree of Life. I feel like all of the distancing narratives, and the murmured voiceovers, and the shots of the gloaming — really MEANT something in 2011. And it did! And it probably still does to him. But now it smacks of self-parody to me.

    Maybe I’m just misreading the newer ones. If not, maybe there still another masterpiece in there. C’mon, Malick. We’re looking forward to it.

  60. Johnny, I actually kinda liked “Song to Song” more than “To the Wonder” or “Knight of Cups”, so I wouldn’t exactly say diminishing returns, but yes, I don’t want Malick to make any more films like this. These last 3 kinda remind me of Michael Mann’s ongoing “shot on video” phase, where you’re wondering if the artist is so in love with the ease with which he can make a movie now, that he started to abandon the stuff we liked about him.

    I do have to say Song to Song does have its pleasures – the “story”, when eventually, slowly, revealed like a mystery, is more interesting than the last two movies, and there’s that awesome Val Kilmer cameo that I actually laughed out loud at. Plus Natalie Portman is legit great here, playing a character we’ve never seen her play before. She’s warm and involving and has never been more gorgeous onscreen, which is saying alot.

  61. Brought here by the JOJO RABBIT review and can’t believe I missed this, as TREE OF LIFE is a top five of all timer for me. This really captures it:

    “But my reaction to the movie wasn’t at all intellectual. It was purely emotional and personal. The details didn’t match my childhood or my present, but the feelings were so universal and so lucid it just hit me in the gut like a sockful of quarters.

    It reminded me what it felt like to be young, what the world looked like. It seriously made me remember weird things from my childhood that I had forgotten for decades. And it just snuck up on me in a way a movie never really has before”

    Yup. This is what appeals to me about late Malick, even through to smaller, darker, and more abrasive KNIGHT OF CUPS, which I think was unfairly maligned.

    Malick does not tell a story with words. He takes you on an immersive emotional theme park ride, pushing primal quasi-Freudian/Jungian archetypal buttons you didn’t even know you had. It’s not that it is a superior form of filmmaking than a more conventional and talky narrative, it’s just that it’s a whole other experience that is primal and emotional and far less-so discursive. His ability to weave big ideas and tiny personal worlds, toggling between the two, is as intense a religious experience as I have ever had.

  62. This movie taught me how one bad decision can ruin otherwise great work. Cut every frame of Sean Penn out and it’s a pretty amazing movie that stays just on the good side of abstract. Keep it and it’s just interminable. Penn’s segnents completely shatter the fragile, naive vibe of the childhood sequences and makes the more psychedelic stuff feel pretentious. Juxtaposing the origins of the universe with a subjective tone poem about growing up is the kind of bold vision I could get swallowed up by. Throw in a middle aged white guy in a suit wandering around an allergy medication commercial lamenting his lost whatever the fuck and it all becomes very bourgeois and obvious. It strains for effect in a way that breaks the spell of the rest of the movie. It’s a fatal flaw, in my opinion.

  63. I don’t love the Penn material, it IS obvious, but I didn’t find it movie derailing, and my memory is it that it’s a relatively small amount of the run time. Plus, you want Mallick movies to be a little unfocused; he’s passionate and overreaching, and part of the pleasure is in how his movies feel like an ongoing act of experimentation and discovery.

    Speaking of which, has anyone seen the extended version of TREE OF LIFE that Criterion released? I’m trying to do a retrospective of 2010s movies this year, and that’s high on my list.

  64. I was told there was no additional dino footage in the extended version so no sale

  65. Have it but not watched it yet. I will have to take a closer look at the Penn stuff. As an adult with kids and at 40+, I think I find the Penn stuff helps balance out the child stuff, so that the journey comes full circle in wrestling with the adult-child divide. As a child, you may experience the wonder of wide open possibilities and experience your parents as having Greek deity-like attributes. As you become an adult, you may lose the wonder and sense of potential. Maybe you want to go back, maybe you rue the mess you’ve made of adulthood, maybe you’re clinging to wounds you attribute to your parents, or maybe you’re taking them off their pedestal of lionzation or demonization and humanizing them. As much as this film is about the wonder, joy, pain, and difficulties of childhood, it’s also about the boredom, fatigue, disappointment, and anguish of being an adult. The dream and the reality of “when I grow up…” Seeing Penn as an adult helps ground his parents and bridge the gap. They started as a goddess and demiurge but now that I’m grown, I realize their just people, dealing with a lot of shit, including all the baggage their parents handed them.

    Now, that said, I read somewhere that Penn doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing in the film either.

  66. Interestingly, TO THE WONDER and KNIGHT OF CUPS get a lot less love and are regarded as Malick disappearing up his own ass. However, I feel like they are very much in keeping with the aim of TREE OF LIFE, which is to take you on a strange emotional journey where the pacing, editing, nonverbal acting, and use of various types of shots and landscapes are engineered for maximum immersive empathy and emotional resonance — kind of like conjuring a deja vu sensation (or what Vern calls the sock of quarters to the stomach). It does emotional work without being shamelessly emotionally manipulative, because it taps those primal sensory- and emotion-coded experiences. Picture >= 1000 words.

    I think TREE OF LIFE is the best film of his THIN RED LINE and beyond era, because it is very good and very ambitious and very unique. in a sense, it is his most elemental or basic, tracing the life cycle of a boy and juxtaposing this very personal and specific human life against the lifecycle of the universe. Profoundly cosmic and deeply personal and emotional all at once and by design. A huge swing that connects.

    TO THE WONDER and KNIGHT OF CUPS are honestly just about as good for my money, but they are smaller and more particular-seeming, so this may make them seem like lesser works than TREE OF LIFE, what with its delusions of grandeur. However, I like the idea that Malick can point his sensibilities and style toward any particular direction and tell bigger or smaller stories and produce something interesting and moving in that same key — where feeling and nonverbal elements are primary, eclipsing dialogue and discursive concepts. All three of these films are wrestling with the nature of love, freedom, aging, and loneliness, along with the consequences of our choices to come together or pull apart. Each is packed with powerful and interesting things to ponder and feel.

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