The Tree of Life is Dreamy and Weird and Even Sean Penn Didn’t Get It

The Tree of LifeRoger Ebert wrote that The Tree of Life “evokes the wonderment of life’s experience. It created within me a spiritual awareness, making me more alert to the awe of existence.”

Ok, that’s one way of putting it. I’ll put it a different way, though. It’s a weird, dreamy piece of artwork with a thin plot wrapped around it. Oh, I left out existential. That word should go in there somewhere. In fact, if you look at that poster to the right, it’s sort of like watching the movie. There, see? Now you don’t even have to go.

The Terrence Malick-directed film is certainly one of the most talked-about films of 2011, and with good reason. Here’s the official plot:

The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.

Yeah, I didn’t get that at all. Here’s my take, in chronological order as the film played:

10 minutes: Wow, these are stunning images. This movie is like a piece of art. Skies filled with fluffy clouds! Gorgeous landscapes! Beautiful trees!

15 minutes: Uh oh. Someone’s died. It looks like a kid. There’s his sad, lonely guitar in his sad, lonely bedroom.

20 minutes: Ooh, a flashback. This family is so happy! What a nice life they have dancing around in the streets with such a caring mom and dad.

30 minutes: More beautiful images. Skies and trees! Shifting sands! People swimming! Oh, we’re going out into space now. Whoa! There’s a meteor landing on the earth!

the tree of life
Things are not always as they seem in The Tree of Life household (or movie)

40 minutes: Uh oh. There’s something dark going on here. The dad is not such a happy dad. He’s kind of mean.

50 minutes: Oh crap. He’s downright abusive. Brad Pitt, I don’t like you anymore. Why must you be so stern with your adorable kids? Don’t hit your wife!

60 minutes: Ok, seriously, the images are nice, but I’m tired of them. Wait, what? How’d a dinosaur get in there? What’s going on here?!

70 minutes: Sean Penn is in a high-rise building talking on a phone.

80 minutes: Did I somehow get abducted by aliens and dropped into a different theater playing 2001: A Space Odyssey?

At about this time in the film, one of my companions got up and left. My other companion stuck it out, but said as we left the theater, “Well, there’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.”

The Tree of Life: Sean Penn
If I only knew what this movie was about…

Look, there’s no doubt that The Tree of Life is bizarre and avant-garde, and I still don’t really know what to make of it. But it’s definitely different, in an experimental indie kind of way.

And I’m still not sure what the tree in the title was all about. There were some nice fleeting images of trees in the cosmic ballet sections of the film, but maybe he’s talking about a family tree. How life goes on, even when someone dies. Or something.

But hey, even Sean Penn isn’t sure what the movie was about, and he starred in it. Well, if you call having about five minutes of screen time “starring” in it. In a recent interview with Le Figaro (don’t bother clicking over unless you know French – which is somehow appropriate for this review), he said this:

“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

Ok, then. I totally agree. If the movie had more of a plot, it would have appealed to more people. But maybe appeal isn’t what Terrence Malick was going for. Maybe he’s ok with 50% of the viewers saying it’s the most fantastic movie they’ve ever seen, and 50% trying to get their money back as they leave the theater.

The Tree of Life is rated PG-13 “for some thematic material,” but it should have a special rating all its own. Something like PG-R-15-DW for “sort of PG, sort of R, probably not good for kids under 16, and Downright Weird.”

Have you seen The Tree of Life? What’s your take on it?

Other Reviews of The Tree of Life:

Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel: “Glibly put, this challenging time-skipping rumination is the big screen equivalent of watching that ‘Tree’ grow.”

Rick Groen, Globe and Mail: “The result actually plays like a divine pronouncement, cosmic in scope and oracular in tone, a cinematic sermon on the mount that shows its creator in exquisite form. Exquisite but frustrating.”

Tom Long, Detroit News: “The vision is dazzling. The portrayal of family life palpable. The ending … well, let’s go back to the vision.”

Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: “[It] not only aspires to change your life – it tries to explain it, from the first cosmic blip to those busy amoebae splitting and multiplying, to jellyfish jellying through the primal seas, to the planets lined up in a row.”

Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic: “Beautiful, baffling, poetic, pretentious, it’s one big ball of moviedom.”

James Berardinelli, ReelViews: “Striving for no less than the pinnacle of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life falls short of masterful but retains a power that far too many motion pictures lack.”

Wesley Morris, Boston Globe: “This movie weighs so much, yet contains so little. It’s all vault and little coin.”

J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “These audacious sequences can’t help but evoke the metaphysical questing of 2001, and in fact The Tree of Life often feels like a religious response to Stanley Kubrick’s cold, cerebral view of our place in the universe. Not to be missed.”

Bob Mondello, NPR:The Tree of Life is astonishing in some spots, almost incoherent in others and if it doesn’t frustrate you at least some of the time … you’re not paying attention.”

Dana Stevens, Slate: “Here’s a testament to this reclusive, stubborn, visionary director’s stunning achievement: His films can change the way you look at the world by showing you how another person sees it.”

Christy Lemire, Associated Press: “If you’re open to letting the imagery wash over you, to allowing yourself to get sucked into the film’s rhythms and fluidly undulating tones, you’ll be wowed.”

Andrew O’Hehir, “It’s a noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy, alive with passion for art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come.”





23 responses to “The Tree of Life is Dreamy and Weird and Even Sean Penn Didn’t Get It”

  1. Living Large Avatar

    Thanks for the review as this is something I probably would have seen. But now, I will wait for it on Netflix. Or not.

  2. NoPotCoooking Avatar

    Well. I’m pretty sure that’s one movie I won’t be seeing. I thought that Jim Carey movie with Sunshine in the title was unwatchable. This goes beyond that.

  3. sarah henry Avatar

    Hilarious, Jane. Have been going back and forth on this one. Definitely think I can wait after your recap here.

  4. merr Avatar

    It almost sounds dreamlike, rather than a typical storyline. Dreams are not linear, and use symbolism….and now you’ve got me wondering if this is part of what was going on in this film–at least in part or technique.

  5. judy stock Avatar

    Jane, loved your review. Watched the trailer. Now I really wanta see it. Sounds like my experience with 2001-a Space Odyssey. Couldn’t figure it out right away but watched the movie 10 times. And, for me that’s a record.

  6. Alexandra Avatar

    I really wanted to see this film, then my daughter told me she had not liked it. Now that I’ve read your brilliant review, I want to see it again. Will report back here once that is done.

  7. ruth pennebaker Avatar

    I think everybody should see it simply because it’s so polarizing — and you might as well find out which side you fall on. I found it pretentious and incoherent, but that’s just me.

  8. Kerry Avatar

    I’m thinking I agree with Merr’s comment, above, wondering if that was a technique using dream like images. memory often works in symbols too, though. a really creative review, in any case, Jane, thanks.

  9. Sheryl Avatar

    I was all set to skip this one, but now I’m not so sure. I may go and see it out of sheer curiosity.

  10. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    My thought as I watched it was, “Americans don’t make movies like this. This must be German. Made in 1932.”
    I had to leave before it was over (no fault of the film), but from what I’ve heard, I don’t think I would have liked the ending.
    The 50’s family scenes were enormously evocative.
    My husband said the only reason Sean Penn was there was to bring in Sean Penn fans.
    I hated the reviews that dismissed it because they obviously didn’t want to be made to think.
    I liked your review.

  11. Alisa Bowman Avatar

    Great review– and thanks for helping me save 2 hours of my life. Of course I’ll probably waste them in some other way, but still.

  12. Melanie Avatar

    Well, I’d like to see it, but I’ll probably rent it. That way Frugal Man can wander off if he get frustrated, which he probably will.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I doubt my hubby would have lasted more than 30 seconds or so.

  13. alison Avatar

    Have been going back and forth on this one. Definitely think I can wait after your recap here.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I think part of it’s being in the right mood for it. I went into it expecting a linear storyline. I don’t necessarily need a Point A to Point B story, but at least something resembling that. Something that isn’t a mish-mash of images and thoughts.

  14. MyKidsEatSquid Avatar

    Yeah, now I feel like I’ve seen the movie. Great description here Jane. Love the play-by-play with the minutes.

  15. carlaL Avatar

    I have not seen the movie yet and with all the comments about I wonder how the story goes and want to see it.

  16. Woobly Whall Avatar
    Woobly Whall

    To put it mildly, all those “critics/magazine-editors/writers” who said their piece in the above portion/review are FULL OF S#*%! I’m just sitting here wondering, after just watching the DVD, whose butt they’re browning their noses in? Doesn’t surprise me! Why should I expect anybody in this liberal media to voice a truthful opinion! I suspect that if it didn’t star Brad Pitt, and 5 minutes of Sean Penn, these Liberal Hollywood Suck-Ups would be tooting a different horn!

  17. Woobly Whall Avatar
    Woobly Whall

    Oh by the way, . . . WORST MOVIE EVER! Still baffled why Brad Pitt(actor/producer) found this role and/or movie appealing! ? ? ? ? ? ?

    The title and picture clips are very deceptive! I thought I was going to see a science fiction type movie with all the metaphysical and mystical elements of the Kabbalah, hence the “Tree of Life.” Not so! This movie has a tenuous plot, and really makes no sense at all!!! Not in the least!!! Extremely boring!!!

    What makes me mad is that those reviewing this movie are obviously liberal Hollywood suckups that I said they were b/c they are “Full of $#*% !!!!!” You can’t tell me that they thought this movie was even average!!! Literally, I am “LMA off” at them! They can’t even voice a truthful opinion! These are some seriously Beta people. Makes me greatful that I’m just an average schmuck…at least I’m true to myself..and is probably why I am still an average schmuck to this day! U gotta be an @$$-kisser to be one them. Sell your soul to be in the “in crowd.” Ha ha ha ha ah aha ahahhaha hahahahaha!! Not me! I’m an Alpha. I think and have a voice for myself, true to myself – 99% of us Americans are! It’s TRULY sad that the 1% elitists (definitely Betas) are the ones running this country and the media! Keep kissing that #$$ LMAO

    If I was an Octopus, . . . 8 thumbs down for this flick!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Thank you! I so agree. And I practically fell over when I heard that film groups were picking The Tree of Life for their Top Ten/Best movie of 2011 (Indiewire is one). Good grief. I don’t think so.

  18. […] Malick‘s To the Wonder, which is said to be even weirder than Malick’s previous movie, The Tree of Life.Once again, there are those who say it’s brilliant and others who say it’s crap. I […]

  19. […] just re-hash the Brad-ness.And, really? If I stand in a corner and ramble on like a scene out of The Tree of Life, will you pay me millions of dollars, Chanel?What do you think? Like the ad? Or does it just make […]

  20. […] Chastain also has a history with the Chicago critics; last year she won their prize for best supporting actress for The Tree of Life. […]

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