The Tree Of Life* Review

Film Still
  • The Tree Of Life film still


A glorious ode to the improbability of existence which asks us to cherish the simple processes of living and loving.

Like Halley’s Comet, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life feels very much like the kind of cosmic spectacle that most good, law-abiding citizens will get to see just once in their lifetime. The term ‘masterpiece’ feels inadequate, both as down-the-line hyperbole and because it infers that the work we’re watching is operating on the same formal and technical level as that shiny, lovable mass we like to call ‘cinema’. And as you’ll realise very early on, that’s just not the case.

It’s a film which, famously, cost more money to make than this sort of film ordinarily should do. It’s also a film that feels torn from the heart, an unqualified triumph of personal artistry that puts the abiding interests of its maker into crisp focus and overlays them with a rousing orchestral flurry.

Yes, Malick may have come dangerously close to perfection in the past with his rhapsodic studies of innocence lost and found – Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World – but this new film feels like the purest and most perfect expression of his unique cinematic worldview.

It already arrives on these shores in a blizzard of hype and debate – the subject of both vicious critical pans and breathless decrees of stultified awe. It’s a hot potato, for sure, but the passion and ruthless articulacy with which most have defended/attacked it stands as a testament to a type of cinema which, to understand, enjoy and, hell, connect with on a profound spiritual level, does require a small leap of faith.

The 1950s: the O’Brien clan of Waco, Texas, are an extraordinarily average bunch, and it’s the very humdrum nature of their activities, aspirations and personal interactions which supplies this film with its universal philosophical reach. Brad Pitt, making for a supremely melancholy presence as father of the brood, delivers a performance so guileless, so full of soul, that you can’t quite believe it’s him.

His loving wife, played by radiant newcomer Jessica Chastain, is the free-spirited Yin to his suppressed tough-guy Yang, and the large part of the film is comprised of ornate, stand-alone snapshots of their lives, specifically the way they go about raising their three errant sons. Emmanuel Lubezki’s restless camera snakes around their house and across their front lawn, visually stockpiling emotional minutiae at the expense of straight scene after straight scene.

Initially, these evocative fragments feel formless: they never coalesce into stand-alone anecdotes, actions are often shorn of reactions, nothing is manipulated into conventional drama. But context is paramount, and Malick doesn’t just want us to consume these moments on their own terms.

Therefore, he escorts us on a swift excursion to the origins of the universe, an occasion visualised as an elaborate infusion of colour and sound that’s reminiscent of the abstract hand-painted short films of Stan Brakhage and Len Lye. Some have suggested comparisons with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this film is far more attuned to human experience.

As stars gradually align, we bear witness to the first stirrings of life, the first family, and even – via an eccentric stand-off between two dinosaurs – the first instance of physical compassion. In this light, the seemingly meaningless exploits of the O’Briens take on an unbearable fragility. The Tree of Life is a glorious ode to the improbability of existence, a film of immense sincerity, which asks us to cherish the simple processes of living and loving.

Sean Penn also has a supporting role set in the present day. He’s the weather-beaten eldest son who’s now fully grown and working as a hotshot architect. The film is framed as an amorphous blur of personal memories, making the fractured formal approach feel totally natural. Some have accused it of carrying an evangelical Christian undertow, but that is simply not the case.

Everything we see and hear in this film is refracted through personal perspectives and juxtaposed against grand celestial backdrops. Any religious content is the result of Malick making sure that we’re seeing the world through the eyes of his characters. The politics, the sentiments, the ideology – all are theirs.

In true Malick form, The Tree of Life does not advocate or refute religion as much as it offers a third way. Heaven exists, it says, and you can find it here on Earth. It’s the fields, it’s the streams, it’s the structures, it’s the sensations, the people, the sunshine – it’s the whole damn thing. There’s no way to like The Tree of Life in parts. It’s all or nothing. To put it in the vernacular of the film itself: every second counts.

View 16 comments


4 years ago
This film is highly overrated and I do have to say that I am very disappointed that you praise it the way you do. Yes, the pictures are beautiful, yes, the music is too and yes, the boys play wonderfully, but no, it is not Pitt's best performance and no, I really don't understand anything of the story at all. This is not a celebration of life and the universe. In my own humble opinion, this film is a superficial look at the world and the beautiful pictures cannot deceive anyone of its tremendous lack in story. I've seen the film without any given story line and I didn't understand a thing. Again, in my opinion, this film is highly overrated (as is Malick himself).

Graham Holford

4 years ago
I have to ask why you think Malik is overrated?...I have not seen 'Tree of Life' so I can't debate that.....but 'Badlands', 'The Thin Red Line'...overrated?


4 years ago
Do you wanna watch a masterpiece about death and love, life, god and everything in between? Watch "8 1/2" (again) and forget about "The Tree of Life".

chris neilan

4 years ago
I for one do think The Thin Red Line has been stratospherically overrated in recent years, specifically surrounding it's dvd re-release, however I'm very excited about the prospect of seeing this. And Graham, if you have a sister called Diana then I know her. If not, I know someone else's sister.

Graham Holford

4 years ago
Wow...I it really is a small world..Yeah I have a sister called Diana.

I don't think 'The Thin Red Line' is overrated though. I would be interested to know why there is so much Malik hate up in here. If you like his films or not he should be celebrated merely for his presence in Hollywood.


4 years ago
I saw the film last night. I really like some of Terrence's previous films, Badlands in particular, however I was battered into almost catatonic boredom by Tree of Life. I was constantly looking for meaning in what I was watching, I didn't get it. I'm not sure whether that's mainly due to my expectations or my ignorance.


4 years ago
I'd go with /slightly/ overrated, but impressive all the same. If you chop off about 40 minutes of dizzyingly gorgeous cine-wank at the start and end, you're left with a genuinely moving and original coming-of-age memoir


4 years ago
I liked "Badlands", but "The Thin Red Line" was crap. Just for me personally, I think his visions are purely photographic. I can't see depth in "The Thin Red Line" or "The Tree of Live". Yes, you are able to interprete a lot into it, but that's really all about it. If I try to peel off the layers of his characters and story to get down to the core of the film I, personally, find nothing, but scenery. I went to see this movie without knowing anything about it except Pitt and Penn being in it. I didn't get most of the scenes that I later found explanations for in reviews like this one. But I think, I should have gotten those at the moment I was watching, shouldn't I? As I also stated, it's only my subjective view and I don't want to offend anyone.

Greg Alario

4 years ago
Alan, although the overwhelming majority of critiques of "The Tree of Life" applauded it, yours is the first I have read, of over 50, that, from my perspective, actually got the film. I have read its art, performances, style and writer/director commented on but not the simple message that the I saw in the film. Summing it up as asking us to cherish the simple processes of living and loving was brilliant.

I am sure your life is busy, but if you found any spare time I would like to discuss this film more in depth with you. If that is not possible, let me commend your insight, spirituality and review of a great film. - Ciao
gregalario at gmail.


4 years ago
Its a film that divides opinion and has got the world talking about art cinema. For that alone it deserves a 5. Truly thought provoking.

Emma Paterson

4 years ago
I'm pretty sure that "story" isn't Malick's point...


4 years ago


4 years ago
For a while, The Brown Bunny had the same effect, and I don't think was a '5'.

But facetiousness aside, I found it to be a curiously hypnotic mixture of spellbindingly beautiful and slightly embarrassing. I can't imagine it will hold half as much power on the small screen, though. This is definitely one to see at the cinema.


4 years ago
Really agree that this is one of the first reviews I have read that relates the brilliance of this film. I think the comparisons with 2001 are fair in its attempt to reach into the stratosphere, cinematically and philosophically. I think this will be seen as one of cinema's greatest achievements in years to come.


4 years ago
This film is appalling.
The concepts the film raised were not new, nor were they done in an original way. I watched it in an independent cinema with an audience that was expecting something brilliant. If you had been in that cinema you would've felt the communal anger that the audience had for the film. It was tiring trying to get something out of the film. I was screaming inside my head "Please, please, not another 20min montage of some stars!!! We get it, we're all part of the bigger picture." I saw about 4 couples walk out.

I thought the acting was good, but it's so disjointed that we really don't get a chance to enjoy it. A line here, a line there. The dialogue (when we rarely have it) is boring. The cinematography is lovely but excessive and when in conjunction with the soundtrack leads to it being somewhat 'over-the-top'. The film tries so hard to inspire you, but all it comes out with is a message we knew already. Love one another. Love must rule your life. Life is fickle.
The Tree of Life is nothing more than self-indulgent tripe.


3 years ago
I would describe this film as deep and if you like that kind of films I'm sure you'll understand it.

Me on the other hand have never been so bored in my life by a movie. What was up with that extremely long scene when I guess they were showing the evolution or something? (I'm sure that had a deeper meaning as well.) And the storyline was just... whaaat?

If your looking to get easily entertained this is not the movie for you, but if you want to think a lot and read into things then you will probably like it.
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