The Tree Of Life - DVD Review

'if David Attenborough ever bothered to sit down and craft a fictional drama but maintained his fascination with all things natural then this is what it would look like'

Terrence Malick - the easiest director to parody or mock who never seems to get parodied or mocked - returns after, by his standards, a comparatively short absence with The Tree Of Life, a film that, once again, features his trademark 'floaty' narration and obsession with trees, grass and butterflies. If David Attenborough ever bothered to sit down and craft a fictional drama but maintained his fascination with all things natural then this is what it would look like.

Of course, Attenborough might restrain himself to a story which makes solid narrative sense, rather than pausing his story to take in the big bang, single-celled organisms' emergence from the primordial soup and a sympathetic dinosaur or two. Only Malick can make this sort of thing. How do you pitch something that involves dinosaurs as a throwaway gesture if you're not him?

Easy though it is to second-guess Malick's cosmic meandering, the first hour of the film, which takes in all this and more, is a joy to behold. Inter-weaved with the story of Jack (Sean Penn) and Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is an ambitious, beautiful, experiment of a film, flashing through nebula with the care and craft of Kubrick's 2001. Nothing in this first segment appears quite where you expect it to although - and this is testament to Malick's lengthy editing process - the jumps between the modern fa├žades surrounding Jack, the abstract look at Universe creation and the Fifties heyday of Young Jack, never feel like they jar.

Come the second hour though, where the focus is much more on Young Jack, Malick loses some of the film's magic. Gone are the unexpected visual treats (although the camera work remains excellent) and in their place a much more predictable parent-and-child drama, Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt (effectively playing against type) providing the support and aggressor dynamos to McCracken's temperamental youngster.

In the end it is a shame that The Tree Of Life is at its best when Malick is being Malick - abstract, brave and unconcerned with the conventions of film language - and at its worst when he slips closer to something more approaching standardisation. Perhaps it is the jarring of the two, the fact that Malick does move from experimentation to life narration, that creates this effect. Regardless of its cause, the glimpse of genius afforded by the first hour is all the more delicious given how quickly the film moves away from it, returning again to this level of daring only in the final twenty minutes, which prove dazzling once again.

Look further...

'The cast talk as if they are in a dream, they walk, and walk, and walk while mumbling what's going on in their minds. This works for a few scenes, then grows old.' - Rambling Film, C


  1. I actually feel the opposite, the film is better in its more defined 50s segment than in its spacey, tether-less opening/ending sections. Those parts linger a little once I've already understood their meaning and I became a little tired of its grandeur.

    I think it wasted Penn which is probably down to that lenghty editing process you mentioned but Pitt is very good, Chastain a little less so because her character doesn't have as much to do acting/dialogue wise and Hunter McCracken, in fact all the kids, are pretty good in the film.

  2. Agree about the kids, have seen some talk about a Best Supporting nomination for McCracken, which might well be possible. You're right about Chastain, she's much more impressive in TAKE SHELTER, where she has more to do.

    I think my problem with the middle is that I feel like we've seen the 1950's/angst/guilt film from directors who lived through it before. I enjoyed it but didn't find anything new or exciting there, especially when compared to the abstract bits.

  3. Yeah i heard talk about it as well but the performances, as well as the film in general, seems to drifted off in a quite Malick-esque haze.

    Would quite like to see Take Shelter but its not at any cinema within a respectale distance :( wanted to see Chastain in that as she is quite a terrific actor (one of the best things in The Help i think)

    Not seen many films about 1950s angst, have any suggestions?

  4. I knew you were going to ask that! STAND BY ME is the treatise on that particular sub-genre. THE READER deals with it to some extent, albeit in a different way and a different country - still a number of similarities. I'm sure there are many more that someone with a better memory/research capability than I can recall.

  5. ha! Standy By Me i've seen and that was fantastic, it always surprises me when i realise Jerry o Connell was one of the kids in it.

    I can barely remember The Reader so perhaps i'll have to give that another watch

  6. Dissapointed. I agree with desertofreel 'the film is better in its more defined 50s segment' And the end on the beach. Sick-inducing. Loved Pitt and the cinematography but felt unsatisfied especially with that end.

  7. Ah, sorry to hear that Pete. The end is difficult - how exactly do you end a film that has explicitly tried to deal with the creation of the universe, life, death, nature and everything in between? I can imagine a lot of endings would have annoyed a lot of different people but yes, absolutely accept that if you found the 50s family drama involving - as yourself and deserofreel did - then the end is not satisfying.

  8. a gorgeous film. i was very moved by it and was interested how it seemed like it was such a personal story from the director.

  9. i agree that the film is deliciously abstract, but that's also its flaw. you either want to create a slide show of great images, or a cohesive movie. Malick did not do the latter.

  10. I'm with Desertofreel on this one. Hated all that qAso religious stuff.

  11. MrJeffery - delighted to hear you enjoyed it, Sir!

    Candice - I think I agree with that mainly. I would have liked the whole thing to accept it was an abstract experiment and dispense with the attempt at story in the middle, which - although I appear to be increasingly in a minority - I still maintain weakens the whole thing.

    John - yes, do seem to be on a one man island here! I just enjoyed seeing Malick cut lose visually. I could cope with the topic he wanted to explore whilst doing it.