Malick’s The Tree of Life is Awful

Don't believe the hype.

I want to be really careful what I say here, and how I say it. I feel that when critics almost unanimously praise a movie, I tend to agree with their opinions. There must be something good about a film if so many intelligent people have positive reactions to it. When I see a well-reviewed flick, I’m usually not contrarian. I tend to agree with what the critics have to say and maybe my knowledge that it has been well received colours my perception and experience of the film in question. I’d hope not, but I’m sure sometimes that can be the case. I think a lot of us would rather go with the herd that proclaims a film to be a “masterpiece” rather than go against the grain – mainly because our contrary opinion is viewed to reflect intellectual shortcomings or the inability to understand (or “get”) what the film means. It’s one thing to not like a film and say it. It’s another to say it and be called an idiot for doing so.

I’m surprised that I am writing this post. I was the perfect audience member to see Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I’ve seen the trailer countless times and marveled at the beautiful imagery, haunting voiceover, and powerful soundtrack. I’ve urged friends and family to see the film, citing the numerous positive responses from critics and Malick’s auteur status as the reasons for doing so (“he’s only made five films over an almost three decade career – this is an event movie that you must see”). I was overly enthusiastic about the film before I had even seen it. And when I saw it, it’s been one of the only films I’ve considered walking out of, and the only time I’ve been disappointed when I didn’t.

Sean Penn in a desert. Deal with it. It's a metaphor for something.

The words I used to describe The Tree of Life (before I saw it) were “meditation” and “experience.” As in: “The Tree of Life is a meditation about life and death” or “The Tree of Life isn’t a film; it’s an experience.” Yes, I can be slightly pretentious. But I still agree with those statements (especially the experience one) – The Tree of Life is not a film. The best possible “viewing experience” of The Tree of Life would be as background noise at a party. The pictures are beautiful, the sound is great, but don’t dare pay attention or try to make sense of it. As an aside, I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey and Koyaanisqatsi – two films that The Tree of Life has been favorably (though I would argue shallowly) compared to.

This is the film: a series of images (all incredibly shot and lit) with whispered rhetorical questions. For two hours and eighteen minutes. Let me clarify something: a series of rhetorical questions does not make a movie profound nor important. Rather, this movie is the equivalent of an earnest and indulgent drama student who thinks they have something to say and directs a play with two characters (named Grace and Nature) whispering nonsensical phrases at one another for twenty minutes. It deserves a snicker, or for the more sensitive audience members, a feeling of sympathy for the director’s embarrassing display. Malick overreached on this one – it’s okay to call him out on it.

I can understand why some people enjoy (and perhaps even revere) this film. It’s unquestionably beautiful. But there’s not much else. People who have vocalized their dislike of the movie have been attacked for not “getting” it or for being cinematic simpletons who probably should just go see low-brow fare like Fast Five or Transformers. First off – one of the characteristics of The Tree of Life is that no one gets it. The “praise” I’ve read about the film is that it means something different to every audience member. Which is dressed-up language saying that the film has no intrinsic meaning – i.e. it has no point – which is something you can’t say about low-brow fare. Fast Five delivers car crashes and Transformers delivers robot-on-robot action. Mission complete.

One of the sequences I was most excited for was the celebrated “creation” scene of the film. It was underwhelming. This fifty-second clip from Adaptation is much better.

Watching this movie reminded me of a post by Roger Ebert about Jean-Luc Godard’s latest movie Film Socialisme – which Ebert hated, saying “[Film Socialisme] is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.” Here’s the four-minute version of that entire film. To me, it sounds exactly like my experience watching The Tree of Life.

Here: just watch the trailer on repeat for two hours. It’s more moving than the actual film itself (and I wouldn’t argue with anyone if they wanted to give it the Palme D’Or or call it a “masterpiece”).

Grade: D+ (only for the visuals)

Side note: I challenge anyone to justify why The Tree of Life is a masterpiece without referring to the visuals (I’ll concede the point that it is a visual masterpiece). I dare you to.

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10 Responses to Malick’s The Tree of Life is Awful

  1. Chris Hugan says:

    I agree–this film was awful! Unlike you, I left after an hour and drank two martinis to try to forget. Terrible, pretentious, a complete scam.

  2. Modest Movie says:

    I know, I couldn’t believe that this movie has gotten almost unanimous positive reviews. It’s mind-boggling.

  3. iraaado says:

    I watched 20min of it and I was like: “mm.. ok.. so? mm.. ok.. nice imagery.. but.. what’s going on? mm.. ok..” and skip it, skip it again and again, to my surprise, the film is the same, from begining to end. Nothing happens.
    It was the ugliest movie I’ve ever seen.

  4. Richard says:

    Yeah, me my dad and sister rented and watched this together, and after an our or so into the movie I went to the bathroom and when I got back, because it was paused, we all asked if we wanted to continue, and we alll almost didn’t answer just in case one of us actually did wanna watch this. We sort of gave diplomatic answers so to speak. After a minute or 2 of hassle, we concluded that neither of us even wanted to finish it, since there was stil an our and 15 minutes left, unbelievable, it already felt like it had been so long. So my dad just pulled it up on wikpedia and we read the plot, and we got to the end of the summary talking about 5 billion years into the future and we laughed and my dad says he was not making it up. So we kinda fast forwarded it, and stopped every now and then, and quite frankly I wish we hadn’t even had done that. Then after, we were in shock, almost, and we were wondering why they even made this. just terrible movie. Awful.

  5. Levelheaded says:

    An eight + paragraph review which is mainly based around criticising critiques of a movie. And bizarrely for a film review (albeit an amateur one), there is no mention of the acting; let alone any sort of praise for some of the performances.

    To suggest nobody will get it is a little presumptuous (was it that difficult to see the connections to, among other things, Job, nature vs nurture, science vs religion, blah, blah)

    I don’t think it was a great movie, but it’s clear you despise the fact that you rattled on about this movie to your friends before even seeing it and felt you were made to look a bit of a mug by the professional critiques and Malick…boo hoo.

    It is also a little embarrassing that you declare yourself the perfect audience for this film and is probably the reason you feel so cheated that it wasn’t something you’d decided it would be before hand.

    PS – People who decide to walk out of a movie after ten minutes or use wikipedia to decide whether they like or dislike a movie deserve no sympathy.

    • Modest Movie says:

      I appreciate the criticism – after reading this over six months later I realize that most of it is criticizing critiques – bizarre.

      However, I didn’t mention the acting because it doesn’t warrant much of a mention (in my opinion). The actors are more mannequins than characters and I didn’t find any of the performances that memorable or groundbreaking.

      It’s not difficult to see the connections in the film but the actual purpose or message that is trying to be conveyed is hopelessly obscure.

      I don’t think it was embarrassing at all to declare myself a perfect audience for the film – I believed the hype and was excited to see the Tree of Life and was let down, akin to Star Wars fans with The Phantom Menace.

  6. L Smith says:

    Comparisons to 2001 or the Qatsi films are superficial to say the least. Malick’s films have their own lineage, more akin to Russian avant-garde films from the 60’s-70’s than anything produced by Americans to date.

    “Tree of Life”s narrative and poetic tangents are driven by a study of relationship dynamics…. as they say in the film “nature and grace”, or man’s innate savagery vs. his humanity. Every moment in the film is a prismatic study of this tension. The “creation sequence” is not no much a scientific/historical exploration unrelated to the narrative, as it is a poetic purification of the those two inter-related themes. All life contains both savagery, grace, and beauty, all at once, together… at least within the head of the son who is witnessing and reflecting upon everything.

    …and while I find that the film lacks subtlety compared to his other films, which you should see in order to develop the vocabulary to watch them (I recommend “The Thin Red Line” or “Days of Heaven”) and is probably the least of his films in my estimation, I can’t really think of a better film that came out last year. I think that unusual films like these, that pose specific ideas and examine them visually and poetically, ought to be praised. There are so SO many films out there that could just as easily be stage plays… stagnantly structured and over-reliant on empty-headed spectacle. Those films don’t deserve the attention of real filmgoers, as those kind of films are made for the common people, as a sort of consumer product. Great films should be difficult, they shouldn’t necessarily make you feel comfortable in your seat or in your head. The fact that the film irritated you as it did shows that it did have some kind of impact… perhaps you should watch it again.

    • Modest Movie says:

      Thanks for a great response. It may be that I’m at a stage where I can’t appreciate “The Tree of Life” and when (and if) I revisit in a few years I will end up liking it – perhaps it may even become one of my favourites. It’s happened before – the first time I saw “Pulp Fiction” I hated it, and then I re-watched it again about four years later – couldn’t understand what I thought was wrong with it.

      I’m looking forward to watching The Thin Red Line – I’ve had it sitting on my shelf for months and just haven’t found the time to sit down and watch it.

  7. art vandelay says:

    This review was a lot more honest than the film. I didn’t think I could hate Mallick more after suffering through Thin Red Line but Tree of Shit did it for me.

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