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The Tree of Life

A movie directed by Terrence Malick

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Beautiful, symbolic, metaphorical, meditative; quite possibly the year's best.

  • Dec 10, 2011
**** out of ****

It's but once every few years - and sometimes every few decades - that the great Terrence Malick unleashes another one of his bold, bright, and beautiful cinematic visions onto the world. He unveils each project with great confidence; an attitude that could come off as self-absorbed, pretentious, and indulgent; while others find plenty to admire about the man. He's a quiet fellow, and enjoys keeping to himself; most likely an avid observer of nature, human beings, and life itself. In previous Malick efforts, the director has put such observations on-screen in the form of narrative themes and plot devices; but not since "The Tree of Life" has his personal passions for each of them shone through so flamboyantly and with such grace.

In my experience, there are two kinds of "inspiring" films; the ones that inspire through story and tone, and the ones that inspire through the employment of our senses. As human beings, we can hear, see - and figuratively - feel a movie; when it comes to great cinema, there's always some connection that we long to make. I have made honest connections with the films that I love; and Malick's newest offering is truly no exception.

The film is told in a non-linear narrative structure; something that will be different to most mainstream audiences and a piece of cake to devour for experienced film aficionados. In one of the film's many stories, we get the sometimes sweet and sometimes tragic tale of a family living in Texas (the filmmaker's home-town); with most of its members going through drastic, dramatic, and important changes each time they advance in a particular stage in life. The family at the center is the O'Brian family; father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain), and three boys - the most important of the trio being the eldest of the sons, Jack.

I suppose the biggest turning point for the character mentioned, in particular, is one summer in which Mr. O'Brian goes away to embark on a trip around the globe; looking to expand his business. This makes room for a lot of social freedom amongst the kids. Jack is introduced to neighborhood rebellion - joining a local gang of troublemakers who specialize in the arts of exploding animals and vandalism - as well as the desires and new, intriguing thoughts that come with the gift of growth. Jack and his brothers have one thing in common: they all want to grow up. They wonder if, like death, there's something on the other side when you reach a certain age; I find that, in the end, every one of these siblings happens upon an answer to their many collective questions.

Lastly, there's an everlasting side-story that involves the grown up Jack (now played by Sean Penn) recollecting the memories of his troubled existence. In a sense, he tells the story that is presented to us; and it's both tricky and sly how Malick makes us wonder whose eyes this fascinating tale is told through. We may never know for sure who the storyteller is; maybe its father, maybe its mother, maybe it's Jack. It could even be ol' Terrence. Or perhaps even God. The possibilities are unlimited.

A few paragraphs in, I mentioned that the film juggles not one, but quite a few different stories. In a sense, I guess there are only two core narratives; on one side, there is the one centering on the fragmented childhood and the family; while on the other, there are scenes where Malick takes control of his artistic envisioning. Consider the prolonged and slow-moving sequences in which the Earth is created - with dinosaurs eventually inhabiting it - as well as destroyed. There's even a fantastic and moving scene where Malick gives us a look at his ideas surrounding the afterlife as well as the end of times.

Now, there are many criticisms regarding the film; and I think it deserves every last mixed reaction, every last negative comment, and so-on-and-so-forth. I say this because Malick clearly wants to make a film which exists to be, well, divisive; you either love the movie he has made or you don't. Chances are, you'll hate it; but if you're like me and you are deeply moved when a poetic storyteller can philosophize with such effortless whimsy as he does here, then there is plenty to cherish and consider. I know people who find the film pretentious, draggy, unbearably slow, and close to unwatchable. I think it's all about perspective and how much ambition you can take; this is an overwhelming cinematic trip. Like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and even the recent "Enter the Void", it will be misunderstood as often as it will be admired.

I don't think the profound and unique magic of the movie will truly impact the viewer unless the person has seen the past films of Terrence Malick - and liked them. I have seen "Days of Heaven", "The Thin Red Line", "The New World", and the first fourth of "Badlands". I've loved all that I've finished. "The Tree of Life" is a lot like those mentioned films, but at the same time, kind of different too. It shares provocative themes of existentialism, philosophy, and spirituality, and it has the sort of ground-breaking cinematography that defines Malick's visual artistry; but it moved me like none of his films have. That's not to say that those films didn't reach me; they did. It's just that I've often thought about life and its many wonders, in great detail, and Malick's newest film is resonant and mesmerizing. I acknowledge the flaws, and if you think this is a work of indulgence; then you are correct - but "The Tree of Life" is one of the few films from 2011 that really pulled me in as often and as flamboyantly as it did. Isn't vision, ambition, and intent what defines art? Malick's films tend to have all of those things and more; this is easily his biggest film in terms of both spectacle and personal emotions. And when I'm moved, I'm moved; and oh, I was.

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December 11, 2011
"deserves very bit of mixed reaction" Well said! I mean this movie could be interpreted in many different ways, and even I wasn't sure if I got it. Part of its beauty is its openness to interpretation. Great movie! Nice write up.
More The Tree of Life reviews
review by . June 05, 2011
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Every New Beginning is Some Other Beginning's End....
When I got out of the theaters for Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life“, every viewer was asked to put their opinion on a piece of paper as to determine audience reaction. It is a film that is very different. Terrence Malick’s writing and direction turns so many components, angles and layers that to appreciate it one either has to be used to a style of non-linear, unconventional storytelling and/or have a profound appreciation for vague, poetic voice-over to tell its …
review by . July 11, 2011
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Evolution vs Eternity: An Odyssey & A Galaxy
The Tree of Life is a good movie. It is a deep one too. It asks many questions and provide no distinctive answers that matter to the world at large except those of our very own. It is also a movie that is a tad too long for many audiences, imho.      The Tree of Life is a movie for many adults but definitely not for children, despite the fact that half its cast is made up of children. When children are not matured enough, asking those very questions asked by the movie can present …
review by . May 26, 2011
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'The Tree Of Life' 'Two Jews On Film' Only One Says Bravo To Malick's Brilliant Masterpiece (Video)
The Big Bang...Creation...Evolution...God...Religion...Life...Death...Family...These are the themes that Terrence Malick addresses in his brilliant new film, 'The Tree Of Life'.       In my humble opinion, this is one of the most original films in cinematic history.  It is also a film that will divide people...Some will absolutely hate it, some will be angered by it and some like myself, will absolutely love it.           …
review by . February 14, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
   You may ask yourself why a so late review on The Tree of Life. Aside from some personal matters I have to say that when I had the chance to write it I felt like there's so many things to write about this movie and that a shorter review will not be a fair exposition. Now, someone reminded me that I still have not written any review for this film and I was shocked to realize it so I instantly grabbed my pen and started to scratch my paper.      How do you start …
review by . June 19, 2011
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Malick's Meaning of Life
THE TREE OF LIFE   Written and Directed by Terrence Malick   Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn       Mrs. O’Brien: You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.       THE TREE OF LIFE is a true film experience. Writer/Director, Terrence Malick’s latest opus is an assault of the best kind on your eyes, your ears and your mind. It is mesmerizing from the moment it begins with a pattern of dancing waves …
review by . October 15, 2011
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The Tree of Life: On Second Thought
THE TREE OF LIFE Written and Directed by Terrence Malick Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn      Mrs. O'Brien: You'll be grown before that tree is grown.   Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE is the most polarizing film I’ve seen in ages. It was widely reported that plenty of patrons walked out and angrily demanded their money back while just as many fans vehemently defended it, proclaiming the film a modern masterpiece. In fact, this …
review by . June 04, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Star Rating:         Like a finely orchestrated piece of music, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a film that challenges the power of description. It is, paradoxically, his most simple and most challenging work; rather than appeal to the logical desires of the mind – discernable plot, archetypal characters, a clear beginning, middle and end – he relies heavily on visual symbolism, creative editing, and meditative dialogue, most of which is internal. …
Quick Tip by . January 03, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
I decided after 4 attempts not to try to review the movie, it's too overwhelming in both good and bad ways to stay a manageable review. I do have to say it is similar in structure to 2001 and the other Malick movies: The New Worls and The Thin Red Line. And as an amateur photographer I can say that the movie has photographers in mind more than casual movie-goers expecting an exciting plot.
Quick Tip by . July 11, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
It is what each of us takes away that makes it a powerful film. The highest evolution about humans and its relevance to the planet are being portrayed and yet it also hints of the end. Did I enjoy it?      Yes. But, I wish it's slightly shorter ;-) Sensory overload & emotionally explosive!        
About the reviewer
Ryan J. Marshall ()
Ranked #3
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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About this movie


The Tree of Life is a 2011 American drama film written and directed by Terrence Malick, and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The film premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme d'Or.
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Director: Terrence Malick
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Release Date: 27 May 2011 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: Terrence Malick
Runtime: 138 minutes
Studio: Chockstone Pictures, Cottonwood Pictures, Plan B Entertainment
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