Review: Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE Is One Epic Failure

It has some good ideas and looks beautiful along the way (cinematographer Emanuel Lubezski makes ever shot look like a work of art) but Malick as the ship's captain only ever takes The Tree of Life to the bottom of the ocean where it sinks amongst his own ideas for greatness.

rating: 1.5

(My Cannes Film Festival review re-posted as The Tree of Life is released in UK cinemas from today) I missed the first press screening of The Tree of Life on Monday morning having walked from the apartment OWF are renting just off the seafront in Cannes unknowingly without my accreditation pass. Gutted, I knew it was too late to turn back, find the pass, and make it in on time and so I went back to bed in sheer despair that a movie I have waited several years for director Terrence Malick to showcase was going to go unseen by me at the first opportunity because of my own bloody absentmindedness. Instead then I caught the mid-day second screening a few hours later which was still 100% packed to the rafters of people who like me missed the morning one. Maybe even some repeat viewers were there, who knows? The atmosphere and anticipation was still rife and I had not yet read the online reaction to the film on purpose. The only thing I had to go on was Simon Gallagher texting me at 30 minutes in to his viewing with the words, in capital letters, Dear Terrence, WHAT. THE. FUCK?! That got me worried somewhat and my mind began to race over just what Simon could be referring to. I tried to find a way that the words he had formed so precisely together could be hinting at an experience of something positive but that was folly and my worst fears were soon realised.... Briefly and before I get into my review - basically missing that morning screening completely threw my schedule and this is why I'm filing this Tree of Life report in so late. Apologies for that, but at least I've had time to reflect on the screening and come up with something of a considered piece than say those who barely wait until the credits have ended before they get their phones out to tweet a reaction only to then later reverse their opinion when people like Peter Bradshaw gave it 5 stars at The Guardian. Although if you've heard the Monday reaction podcast already then you will know that my view is such that Malick's Tree of Life is a film that clearly took an effort to make but is with few merits - in fact I gave it zero stars in my audio review. This was a kneejerk reaction, I'll admit, and Malick deserves maybe 1 and a half for what he attempted to do here in the modern day film industry but the film breaks so many of the basic and undeniable laws of cinema - most of all being a complete refusal for narrative - that it's so hard for me to praise the thing. The movie is certainly dazzling and has the power to transport it's viewer beyond the theatre, this much is true. It also has a great deal on it's mind which is thankful considering some of the mindless art-house fare you are succumbed to at festivals such as Cannes and I can't help but admire that an uncommercial director managed to get a film like this made (though the length it took him to actually finish it sours that point somewhat). So there you go, it was difficult to praise but I managed a few points there. Malick's Tree of Life might also be amognst the more ambitious films I've ever seen, a movie that attempts to ask the biggest ponderances in the history of mankind - why do we exist, where is God and if he exists is he looking out for us, what happens to us after we die? These are all universally interesting questions of course and they have frequently played a part in thousands of movies but Malick has found a new way here to present mankind's search for the unknown. But none of this means that The Tree of Life is not a failure because it is, and anyone who tells you differently are simply so starved of movies with grand ideas and originality (maybe it's the Jack Sparrow screening on Saturday that did it?) that they will go head over heels for something like this. Let's be clear - this movie is not Earth-shattering, it's not going to change what we think about cinema from here on in, it's not even a film I think that will be fondly remembered in ten years time. Because of it's hype, because of how long the movie was shrouded in secrecy - because of what we know Malick can bring to the table - The Tree of Life can only be seen as a disappointing failure.

The majority of The Tree of Life takes place in Waco, Texas in post-War 50's America and as the very opening voice-over tells us, the drama is meant to depict the argument for a life lived by nature or by the way of grace. Mr. O'Brien (the abusive Brad Pitt) signifies the way of nature and survival of the fittest - telling his son that if you want something in this world you fight hard for it and you make damn well sure you take it for your own. We also find out here is a little bitter that he didn't believe in this way when he was younger, O'Brien being something of a talented musician but he squandered his gift by not pursuing it as a viable career.

His wife Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) believes in the way of grace that her sons should love everyone they meet and treat others with as much respect as you would want. €œUnless you love, your life will flash by.€ she says. Having received a telegram about the loss of one of their children at the age of just 19, the film opens with Mrs. O'Brien searching desperately for the answers as to how this could have happened in the heavens. 'Why, Lord. Where were you?" - and from there we see the big bang as re-created by Malick and we explore the origins of the universe in all it's destructive nature but also it's spectacular beauty. It is easily the most contentious moment of the movie. The sequence does not contain any dialogue and is an operatically scored visual wonder - a kind of The Universe BBC documentary on crack - and is supposed to organically track the path of life on the Earth - everything from the big bang, to the formation of multiple cell organisms, to the beginning of trees and then an odd and fleeting appearance from horrifically CGI'd dinosaurs. Basically the sequence lives up to it's title showing us branches that make-up The Tree of Life. This part of the movie is what everyone will be talking about in post-screening discussions and will be the reason why word of mouth KILLS this picture when it's released in theatres - the Douglas Trumbull-esque universe sequence that begins at the 20 minute mark and might be the boldest meshing of wondrous images I've seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where Stanley Kubrick's opening to that iconic film was so engaging and enrapturing and was masterfully cut together by Kubrick - the sequence in Tree of Life plays a FULL 20 MINUTES and has no energy or drive. For a movie that grandiosely attempts to tell the timeline of the universe it's ironic to think that Malick's own universe he has created here collapses in of itself and swallows itself whole. Malick loses the plot completely - his self-serving, masturbatory and rather offensive montage of images sequence talks down to the audience who Malick supposedly doesn't trust would understand the complexity of his ideas if done through narrative form. I found it repulsive in all honesty. I read somewhere that some of the shots were stolen from Yann Arthus-Bertrand's film Home but I guess you gotta give it to Malick to try and attempt such a feat and I can't imagine how much stock footage he most have shot in prep for the movie. As I said a couple of months ago in relation to this film, directors who spend more than a year in post-production on their magnum opus' puts their movie into dangerous waters because they think too much, they fret, sweat, tinker and make so many radical changes in the hunt for impossible perfection that their original intention becomes compromised. Malick has been given too much freedom in his recent career and he has such an imagination and desire for making challenging, poetic films that he wants to make as difficult as they can be for the ordinary viewer to find engaging - and as long as he has this freedom he will forever make films like this. Some directors are just this way when let loose. When Edgar Wright lost Simon Pegg and made Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - a core center seemed to be disrupted and Wright played to his own excessiveness too much and it didn't work out. That's a populist example of course but Malick desperately needs a domineering figure to keep him in check and say "NO - that ain't cutting to cut it Terrence". He might not get his original vision on the screen but at least we would get better movies and one that doesn't involve 20 minutes of him jerking off in front of the audience with impressionistic images and preaching to you - "YES, you idiot viewer... I am going to make you watch this". And yes I do realise I've just spent about 800 words talking about the significance of that sequence but the film is never able to recover from the point on - Malick has completely lost us. But then what did he expect when he made a 20 minute sequence like that? After this never-ending sequence finally does come to a conclusion we return to the 1950's America and Mr and Mrs. O'Brien (they never get first names) where finally something of a plot emerges where there opposing ideals and how as parents they interact with their sons as they begin to evolve through adolescence is the human side of this story and is mostly what we focus on from now on and it just goes on for way too long and is basically a repetition of this formula... Brad Pitt tells his sons to do or not to do something. Their son does it anyone. Pitt gets angry and in a fiery rage abuses their son. Chastain gets upset and looks upon Pitt dissaprovingly. This sequence is repeated again... and again.... and again - hammering home the one point until the movie ends. We got it Terrence, seriously. Their eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) gets the majority of the brute force of Pitt's forced failed ambitions and the son's psyche seems to be damaged by it but he isn't readily able to fall into the same beliefs of his mother either. She believes in thinking positive no matter what hardship is brought onto us as human begins but as Jack observes the arguments between adults in picturesque suburbia, criminals being arrested and the young disabled around town - he asks God where he is and whether he is actually watching this, or did he dismiss us long ago - letting us humans worry about looking after ourselves. Amazingly, the scenes involving Jack as an older man in modern day America are minimal and mostly glossed over. Sean Penn plays the part as he reflects on the relationship he once had with his parents and how this, along with the huge skyscrapers and buildings of modern day America (he's an architect, I think) - trouble him deeply as he attempts to mourn the death of another brother. Penn, along with the dinosaurs previously, seems to have been a victim of the cutting room floor over the years Malick has tinkered as his only lines are a few pieces of voice-over.

By the final act of the film it's very certain that Malick is preaching a religious end to the film but by then I think everyone was wishing they had spent the morning sunshine on the nearby beach.

I searched desperately for a soul to the movie to cling onto. Once Malick has stopped his stylistic masturbation sequence the film pretty much turns into a one-note story about a harsh, abusive and over worked father whose relationship with one of his sons is troubling - and who we later see as a grown-up engulfed by modern day skyscrapers. That's it. Attempts to make it grander than that just doesn't ever hit the right notes and the balance that Malick was so good at hitting in his previous work between visual symbolism and characters of substance is just missing. I never felt like I got to understand the O'Briens and the performances of Pitt and Chastain don't help. As the father he scrunches his face and although often menacing I never saw him as anything other than serving a narrative purpose rather than as a fully formed character and Chastain is very good at looking off into the distance - that much I know. The blame fairly squares with Malick who gives them little to do with any range Chastain has and what we know Pitt has - maybe if he spent less time on his 20 minute epic sequence (which I can guarantee NO Producer wanted in) then everyone knows the actual important core center of the film would have worked better. The Tree of Life is a 136 minute poem about the search for God in harrowing times and whether he watches us whilst we suffer and fail to get along as human beings. It has some good ideas and looks beautiful along the way (cinematographer Emanuel Lubezski makes ever shot look like a work of art) but Malick as the ship's captain only ever takes The Tree of Life to the bottom of the ocean where it sinks amongst his own ideas for greatness. Bring the festival experience home this year on Blu-ray Disc €“ keep up to date with all the latest Blu-ray news at the Blu-ray Disc Reporter.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.