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Overall Rating
3.85

Awesome40%
Worth A Look: 25%
Average: 22.5%
Pretty Bad: 5%
Total Crap: 7.5%

4 reviews, 16 user ratings


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Tree of Life, The
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by Slyder

"A look through life’s many gnarly branches…"
5 stars

I’ve been away from the theater for the longest time. I guess eventually one sort of “grows up” and moves on towards other things, for better or for worse. However, it seems that more often than not, whenever you move on from a certain activity or hobby or a period in your life that you cherished so much back then, you feel a sense of loss. Like a flame that once burned so brightly within you, was suddenly gone, extinguished if not for the time being, forever. A sense of nostalgia always arises from such moments, and they say that is never good to wallow oneself too much into those moments. But if you’re one of those people that have lived so much in their lifetime and have been weary of the multiple twists, turns and stepping stones that life throws at you that you have to deal and confront and pick yourself up from, then you can’t help but long for those long lost times when things were so simple back then, and then one wonders why are we even in this rock at all? What’s our purpose in this life? Terrence Malick, once again returning to the forte 5 years after his latest release, The New World, stood up to that challenge of answering these relatively big questions and as a result has delivered us an expectedly beautiful but incredibly mind-blowing film that not only examines how our lives have changed from youth to adulthood, but also how our very lives represent merely a microcosm in this universe that were are a part of and that life itself resides in.

The story concerns the coming of age of a boy named Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken), as he is brought into this world, along with his two brothers RL (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), all nurtured and taught by their angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) and strong-willed if abusive father (Brad Pitt). Flash forward to a later timeframe and we see Mrs. O’Brien receiving a telegram informing him of RL’s passing, and Mr. O’Brien is also given the news on the phone later on. Fast forward to a more present timeframe, and we see the adult Jack (Sean Penn) now older, somewhat wiser but much more worn down, going through a midlife crisis that has triggered a sudden remembrance of his brother’s death (who died at 19 years of age), and how that event had deeply scarred his adult life. That event leads him, and the audience to question what and where did that spark of life had suddenly been lost. And it is from this point on, which the film just takes off straight out of left field…

For the past 38 years, Terrence Malick has baffled and stunned viewers with his fragmented, detached yet beautifully constructed films. He takes pride in challenging the viewer to think and reflect what he’s seeing on the screen. Such is the faith that he puts in his audience that for the ones that subject themselves to these guidelines are capable of leaving the theater completely overwhelmed and enthralled by the experience. But such ambiguity has also led to an increasing number of critics accusing the filmmaker of being pompous, ponderous, and pretentious to the point of being boring. Yet several of these criticisms ultimately miss the point of Malick’s storytelling techniques. He’s not the type of filmmaker like Michael Bay or Martin Scorsese or even Christopher Nolan whom follow traditional straightforward methods of storytelling. He’s not one of those filmmakers whom bring themes and topics to your hand all peeled and ready to be digested. No, he constructs his films as one-of-a-kind experiences which demand the audience not only their full attention, but to also to sit back and experience the ride, to absorb everything that you’re seeing on the screen. And if that weren’t enough, he also wants you to put something of yourself into what you’re seeing and feel how it connects to you in an almost primal level.

This was the case of The Thin Red Line, where Malick went beyond Spielberg’s grasp of what war meant for the soldiers who fought WWII in Saving Private Ryan, into asking “why are we even fighting at all?” However, Malick took it upon himself to give us the greatest challenge of all, which is the meaning of life itself and where we fit in the context of the Universe, and it’s with these questions that we plunge into the world of “The Tree of Life”.

Malick’s latest outing is a film that refuses to be categorized. It’s a coming of age story on the surface, but deep down it pursues deeper truths and questions. Not that the film is digging for something new, but rather something that used to be so common that in this day and age it has been taken for granted to the point of either been lost or misplaced in our pursuit of mundane things. The centerpiece of the film is a 20 minute mini-montage of the origin of the universe, from The Big Bang to the formation of the galaxies, the solar system, our planet, and the appearance of life in it; from early microorganisms to the age of the dinosaurs. Many have spoken wonders and yet have been baffled by the inclusion of such montage and have wondered if Malick was simply exceeding his grasp considering how minimal and basic his storyline is (and yes, coming of age stories are nothing new). But this has a purpose: All throughout his career, Malick’s recurring theme has always been nature and the relationship it has with humanity, and how humanity seems to be constantly at odds with nature and how violent it is capable of reacting in contrast to nature. Common sense has taught us that in order to understand the problem, you must trace its origins from the very beginning. If you want to understand your purpose of being in this life, you might as well want to see how and why life itself originated in this planet, let alone this universe millions of years ago. And Malick certainly does this with the aid of FX pioneer Douglas Trumbull and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, as they construct a series of beautiful vignettes, with pulsars, nebulae, galaxies and then amongst the dust the appearance of the sun and the planets, all the way to the formation of life on the earth. Alexandre Desplat’s lush score and use of several classical pieces of music ranging from Brahms, Bach, Mozart and Berlioz just add to the beauty of this visual feast for the eyes. I could write 1,000 words describing the amazing landscapes that Malick and Lubezki have filmed, but it wouldn’t do it justice. This is a film that has to be seen on the big screen, ESPECIALLY on the big screen (Lubezki certainly is a lock for a Best Cinematography nomination come Oscar time and certainly a heavyweight competitor in that category).

The point of conflict and the centerpiece of Malick’s recurring theme are stated in the opening voice-over where Mrs. O’Brien whispers to us about the two ways to live life: The way of Nature and the way of Grace, and how the way of Grace maintains its dignity and its humility despite constant aggression and injury whereas the way of Nature demands to be pleased and to impose its dominance over what it sees. These two ways of life seem clear-cut, but are really much intertwined to the point that it seems that one cannot survive without the other. The scene with the dinosaurs serves as a metaphor for this conflict, and it’s also clearly reflected on the personalities of both Mr. O’Brien and Mrs. O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien is a talented musician who gave up his career in pursuit of higher ambition, yet his failure to get a better paying job and for his engineering patents to go anywhere has made him frustrated to the point that he takes it out on his children under the guise of “toughening them up for life’s obstacles that lay ahead”. Mrs. O’Brien on the other hand is very loving and child-like as she plays with her children and helps them embrace the basic yet beautiful qualities of life and earthly nature. This contrast eventually plays havoc on the kids, especially on the main character, Jack, as his father chafes at his mother’s perceived naiveté while his mother criticizes his father’s smothering sense of wisdom. As Jack grows older, his innocence begins to wither away in bits and pieces, but with each one inflicting more and more emotional damage in him as he witnesses several realities first hand and also a continuing series of behavioral hypocrisies within his parents. He wants guidance but he can’t seem to get a straight answer due to fear of his father and due to his mother being almost one-dimensional, causing him to rebel against his parents, namely his father who is clearly the more antagonizing of the two. This very sort of scenario repeats itself on Jack when he’s older, only that he seeks guidance within himself and up above in order to understand why his brother died (we really aren’t explained the reasons of his death, but considering the history of abuse from Mr. O’Brien and how healthy he was, one could argue he killed himself), and again, what the purpose of life is. This question reveals the common flaw of man itself, and that is that man tends to be by nature one-dimensional. We seek absolute truths because they’re absolute and cannot be disputed, but once you realize that those truths don’t exist, we by nature seek someone with more infinite wisdom to give us those answers, a higher power that will put all our doubts to rest (hence the reason why the camera always seems to “look up” towards the sky in every shot).

Many viewers have made the mistake of taking this at face value as some sort of religious or Christian manifest, and their views are strongly enforced by the climactic third act of the movie which I won’t spoil here, and certainly, many viewers have been left baffled by such supposedly “religious” overtones. But this is not the case, because it’s always been a primordial thing amongst us ever since we were young to seek our elders, be it our parents or our teachers for answers regarding several questions that we have. But then you realize that in order to understand what we are going through and what we are living through, we have to learn and educate ourselves and at the same time put what we have lived as a base of experience within ourselves in order to learn from it. And sometimes, on certain situations, we must simply accept that despite our best efforts, some things just are out of our reach and that there’s nothing we could do about them or we did everything we could about them, and how it turned out was simply just how it meant to turn out. Yet, we must take the best things from what he have experienced and learned in order to be better people than what we where, and from then on, we’ll be able to take off that mask of self-deception and absolutism and live life with a clearer and brighter sense of clarity. That is the thing we have overlooked and forgotten, and that’s what this film is about, for what is wisdom without love, and love without wisdom? Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere once said that you get the meaning of a story by just looking at the title, and if you manage to understand the meaning of the title, then you’ll be able to understand the point of the story. And this is true in the case of The Tree of Life, for the Tree is the universe, and we are just part of the millions of branches that grow from it which include other people, animals, plants, this planet, our solar system and the millions of galaxies that form part of this universe. And how we grow and develop will depend on the decisions that we make based on our education and experience, and in the end each decision that we make, will affect the lives of our loved ones and the ones that we know and all of life and the universe that we know.

The acting is fantastic all around, with Brad Pitt giving us what is arguably his greatest performance to date. He embodies Mr. O’Brien as a man who seems to be confident in his abilities and in his talent and yet is emotionally broken on the inside. His subtle facial expressions may at first give the perception of a tough busybody (typical of Pitt in his earlier films) but also reveal unsuspectingly a pain and an agony of being passed over despite the fact that he feels he has far better resources to succeed. Matching him is Jessica Chastain, a newcomer whom has suddenly spurred to life in several new films this year. She embodies Mrs. O’Brien with an ethereal beauty and radiance that speaks volumes even if she herself doesn’t have much dialogue (not counting her voice-over work), and her expressions are matched perfectly by the mood of each scene. Both Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken are exceptional in the role of Jack, with McCracken himself being the spitting image of a younger Penn. Many people have criticized Malick’s use of Penn in the film, and even Penn himself has wondered aloud about it since it seems rather pointless. This is similar to criticisms Malick has had over the years over the use of name actors only for their parts to be either significantly reduced (Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line and Christopher Plummer in The New World) or just being distracting cameos. While there is some legitimacy to such criticisms, this one in this particular movie can be debated, mainly because the character of Jack is the main character of the movie, and because of that, the fact that Sean Penn plays the older part is largely irrelevant. A no-name actor could’ve played this part as well, and in the end, Sean Penn is an actor and is just doing his job, to play a character, and I think despite everything, he does a great job in the film as he channels the younger Jack’s frustrations just as profoundly. Laramie Eppler is also excellent as the brother in question, R.L., whose character ultimately represents nostalgia incarnate, an embodiment of an era that has passed.

You can perhaps dismiss my absolute recommendation of seeing this film due to my fondness for Terrence Malick, but by doing so, you’d be missing out on what’s perhaps the most evocative and thought-provoking film of the year. True, this is not a film for everyone; if you’re looking for entertainment, you’re in the wrong movie. But if you’re like me, that sees the art of filmmaking not just for entertainment purposes but also as a medium to teach and to make you reflect on things in life as well as your own life, you’ll definitely see this movie (repeat viewings are definitely a must). The whole catch about it is to not try too hard in figuring out what the film is trying to say but to absorb it and allow your own experiences to connect with it. I related a lot to this film, for I’ve also had my own questions and doubts about this life. I was in a rather low emotional state at the time, and while I watched this film, it connected with me on so many levels, and I related to a lot of the things that this film depicted. By its end I was overwhelmed and flabbergasted by it that I was reduced to tears. Months later, I got the DVD and again, my response was highly emotional Yet both times I came out of the film with something more, a lesson that I’ve been guilty of forgetting, but must always remember, and that lesson is simply not dwell over the past, to build from experience, and to look forward towards the future with clarity, grace and wisdom, and to try and live a much better life than what I had before.

And I believe that is what all of us want out of our lives after all. 5-5

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21235&reviewer=235
originally posted: 10/18/11 19:30:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.

User Comments

2/23/17 morris campbell majestic and deep NOT 4 everyone though 4 stars
6/07/13 PAUL SHORTT GRACEFUL, BEAUTIFUL AND VISUALLY IMPRESSIVE 4 stars
6/05/12 mr.mike I found it much more watchable than "Melancholia". 4 stars
4/05/12 Terrence Malik's mother This picture is so pretentious and so are the critics 2 stars
3/18/12 Quigley One of the most hypnotic films I've ever seen. One of Malick's best. 5 stars
3/02/12 Katherine I adored this film. I felt like I was watching an art museum come to life. Not for most. 5 stars
12/26/11 Man Out Six Bucks Melancholia was so much better. Good acting. Chaotic editing. Needs a story to pull you in 3 stars
12/07/11 jhwallacejr One of the most boring pretentious films I have seen in a long time..... 1 stars
11/12/11 Simon Definitely appreciate what it aspires to be, but Malick just demands too much patience here 3 stars
10/24/11 vickie bowles a big yawn 3 stars
10/19/11 Magic Every bit as majestic as you think it is. Love it or hate it, it has lovely cinematography. 5 stars
8/08/11 rick one of the worst i ever saw 1 stars
6/30/11 Kim Phan Urgg!! Way to artsy for me. And I actually like indpendent films! 2 stars
6/26/11 millersxing Malick's head-swimming aesthetic frustrates as you resist it, but elevates as you surrender 4 stars
6/21/11 Bob Dog I liked Malick's earlier films, I like artsy movies - - but this is pretentious twaddle. 1 stars
6/06/11 Shaun A Fantastically simple and powerful. 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  27-May-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 11-Oct-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  27-May-2011
  DVD: 11-Oct-2011




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