Film review: Tree of Life (2011)

My review will be a little different this week, in that I will write my own opinions, and add pieces from other reviews I’ve read to try and gain various angles on the film. So if you notice your own sentences in the mix, I’ve shamelessly lifted them, take it as a it an interactive review for lack of a better term...

Won Palme D’or at Cannes. Loved the film, I was in awe. In my top 3 films of 2011 and what could possibly budge it out of that slot? I thought this would be an event people would be queuing up for, turns out they only screened Terrence Malick’s new film because I bought a ticket, and it had only been going a few days.

A film that will probably divide audiences, some viewers no doubt will find the scenes of the origins of the universe pretentious and boring or be frustrated by the non-linear narrative, others with more patience will appreciate the extraordinary beauty, symbolism and ambition.

Can take your worries away, and much like a nature documentary I drifted peacefully into the images at times, other parts of the story are highly emotional. I left the theatre with a very calm fulfillment. Poetic and contemplative, and the theme of remembering your childhood has universal appeal. The film makes us the viewers think about our own memories of growing up. I’d call it an innocent film, there is no sex or sexual connotations. A few females may be disappointed that Brad Pitt doesn’t get it on, ha ha. And that trailer has got to be one of the best I’ve ever seen.

The fact the film doesn’t comment much on life in the 50s perhaps is a strength in terms of the films longevity, its about timeless family issues more than the time it was set, as James at centralfloridafilmcritic wrote about in his review.

As Steeve at Cinematic Paradox says in her review, the story looks over many things in life, and doesn't particularly teach anyone how to live their life or what the right path to follow is.

Anna's review at 5plitreel points out it lacks focus as a narration and tends to be more like a stream of consciousness than anything else. But as we’re seeing it all from adult Jack’s point of view, there’s really no reason why it all should make sense to everyone in a traditional way.

Malick is not afraid to stick to his artistic vision, which for Bonjour Tristesse could be interpreted as what the director is talking about in the opening scene. The intro is like a short film, a powerful piece about choosing the way of nature or the way of grace. The parents probably represent different elements, the ambitious father electing the path of nature and wanting to achieve certain goals in life and oppressively expecting his boys to do the same, attempting to make them tougher, while the childlike mother raises her kids with more understanding of their need for playfulness. Success for the father is financial and he is never satisfied, while the mother is seemingly removed from the world around them, not concerned with wealth, but can find happiness in the simple everyday way of life. As Roger Ebert writes, there is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness.

The story is about how the young Jack is coming to terms with growing up, split between the mother and father, and beginning to question the world and his father’s actions. The tragedy that occurs puts life into perspective for the family. As filmplicity comments, Malick reflects on the mystery of suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? If God loves the world, why do we experience pain and loss?

I’m not sure if older Jack (Sean Penn) has a yearning for his father, but certainly a longing for his siblings and mother from his childhood, the way they once were. Most of all I think he would like to go back to the place where he once belonged and be a boy again, he seems lost as an adult. Sky scrapers are the trees of the city, not a very good replacement for the trees of his youth. The mask sinking into the ocean near the end, is this a symbol of older Jack in essence showing us during the flashbacks who he is behind the mask?

The title is interesting. We are all part of a family tree, and on a larger scale a global family. The tree by the family home plays an important part of the childhood memory for grown-up Jack. The tree of life is obviously also a religious symbol.
In Mad Hatter’s podcast, they talk about how The Tree of Life is a critical darling, like going to cinematic church, not in the preachy way, but to do with faith and believing in something bigger, personal religion, not organized religion. Getting to a point where you can question it, as its not a crime.

The visuals from space are to do with the birth and expansion of the universe, while Jack’s character is an example of a human, a drop in the ocean on a smaller scale, growing and interacting with his surroundings. The two levels, the universe, and man, bring in to question how we are all part of the big picture, and how insignificant one person really is in the great scheme of things, yet it is plainly obvious in the case of Jack’s memories of childhood how valuable and essential family and love is. I don’t know if the story is autobiographical, felt very personal, as if Terrence Malick had used his own upbringing as inspiration.

Interestingly, moments of being a baby are quiet, perhaps, as Andina at inspired ground suggested, that dialogue is not key when you are an infant, what is important is wordless love from your parents.

I loved the words of wisdom that are whispered. My favourite quote is: “Don’t let anyone tell you there’s anything you can’t do”. Bitchinfilmreviews was displeased with the sometimes barely audible, mumbled monologues, he could be on to something, which is a weakness of sorts, luckily I watched The Tree of Life with subtitles. Another flaw I identified, and several other bloggers such as limereviews were confused by, (spoiler) was the question of the third brother and his lack of screen time. Older Jack reflects on his childhood on the anniversary of his brother’s death, but which sibling who dies is actually not clear.

Sati at cinematic corner disliked the film: "Ironically though, it manages to make us appreciate life – after 140 minutes of boredom everything will seem fascinating to you. I don't know who Malick thinks he is. I don't need him or his movie to appreciate nature, life, things around me. (...) Nature is full of life, fascinating, always changing, restless. Tree of life is the opposite of that (...) Malick, I think, wanted to make a movie where life itself is a protagonist. But ironically, why waste more than 2 hours of your life watching it if you could just, quite simply, live?"

Most importantly, Malick's film has to be seen on the big screen, as is the case of all his films, I can’t imagine anything else doing it justice, although that’s also a measure of quality I guess, if it holds up on dvd? If you don’t see it in the cinema, then you haven’t really seen The Tree of Life as it was intended to be watched. Comparable to 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of ambition, the approach to visuals of epic proportion and classical music, and many quiet scenes where the audience can reflect, yet having more of a human element than Kubrick’s masterpiece. Could well become a classic, I’m definitely going to have to get this on dvd soon.

Very simple and at the same time very complex. To be honest, hard to do the film justice in words, has to be watched to be fully appreciated. As filmplicity said in his review, how do you critique a film that will mean something different to everyone who sees it?

More than anything, I think the film try’s to capture the joy of childhood where you experience things for the first time, and Jack’s yearning as an adult to return to that innocence and family unity. For other viewers, it may mean something completely different to them, and if you rewatch the film at different stages in your life, the film will open new doors in your mind, wherever you are at in life, such is the scope.

My rating is 9/10, without the flaws would have been a 10.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments below!




  1. Chris, what a coincidence. I had just seen this yesterday, and I am still now wondering what would I say in my review.
    But I agree with filmplicity, since I thought every person must have different angle on the movie, because every person has its own depth of spirituality. I think there must be a personal view on this movie.
    I too question the mask, I thought the movie did not explain much about the mask he put on.

  2. @ Andina : Agreed, the film works on a personal level for each viewer. I think The Tree of Life could become a favourite, have to see if just as good 2nd time around on dvd, will check your review later ( :

  3. Nice work, I like how you included parts of different reviews. That's a great idea for films like this where everyone has written something about it.

  4. @ Bonjour Tristesse : Bonjour, and glad to hear you enjoyed my alternative approach, I guess that was this week's linkage post in the review ( :

  5. I got lucky to see this in a theater back in June before it was in wide release. It was beautiful during the childhood scenes. They were like moving in a stream or the wind. Even the cinematography added to that feeling. The creation and afterlife portions were a bit much, but the whole still hung together well. Besides, I would have been disappointed if they weren't there, since it is a Malick.

    I've heard that Brakhage's film Scenes From Under Childhood is a bit of a companion piece to this one, but I haven't found a copy.

  6. @ Michael Troutman : Haven't seen Brakhage's film Scenes From Under Childhood, either, so can't really comment on that.
    The Tree of Life sure was a highlight of my cinema visits in 2011, the visuals, the music, the moments to reflect, breathtaking stuff, I felt like a child again.
    Here's hoping Malick can keep getting funding for his films, we need more filmmakers like him.

  7. Glad you liked this. I was left speechless after seeing it and to be truthful, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it but it has really grown tremendously on me after some reflection. Certainly one of the most breathtaking film in recent memory.

  8. @ Castor : I'm with you that speechless and breathtaking are the right words to describe The Tree of Life. I'll take a look at your review

  9. I was really excited to watch Tree of Life, but in my review here I explain my disappointment with the movie.

    No doubt about it, the first hour is some of the greatest filmmaking I've seen in my life. That first hour gets a solid 10. However the large segment wedged into the middle where nothing happens really ruined the whole thing for me, and by the time it got interesting again, I had turned off.

  10. @Qyro: Thanks for stopping by! Tree of life is indeed quite different (or unique?) in terms of narrative. I was ok with the large segment wedged into the middle, you are not the only reviewer who was displeased with that filmmaking decision. Will head over to your review soon!

  11. It looks like an outstanding film. Might not be the typical "beginning-middle-end" Hollywood story, but a beautiful addition to the world of film, nevertheless. Great review.

    1. @alleyandthemovies: You are correct, that the narrative is not typical. Tree of Life will probably divide audiences, I'm one of those who loved it both emotionally and visually.


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