Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and a Lesson in Film Watching

I’ve now watched Terrence Malick’s moving cinematic masterpiece Tree of Life 1.5 times as of this writing. The day after watching it the first time, I started to watch it with my now 17 year old daughter. I gave her plenty of warning up front what to expect. We had to take a break half-way through the film and her response was, “This is a really good film. I wish they would make more films like this.”

It’s safe to say that there are some people who feel the exact opposite of this statement. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that has caused such a schism in both the professional and “civilian” worlds with respect to a film. This is absolutely one of those films that grips you and you love it, or you walk out of it scratching your head and wishing you could get back the 2 hours and 19 minutes of your life you sunk into to (let alone the price of the movie ticket(s).

I’m still sorting out my feelings about this movie. I know this for sure, it gripped me. It moved me. And it was powerful enough that I was willing to sit down the day after watching it to see it again. I guess when you think about it, that’s the dream of any sincere filmmaker (or any artist for that matter). That their work moves you. So much so you want to, maybe even need to, experience it again.

In truth, the film is hard to review. There’s no traditional plot, per se. It’s a stream of consciousness, existential journey about faith, love, loss and childhood. I see the film as God’s POV of life. The way it flutters back and forth through time and moments is how I might imagine God doing the same. For God, going from modern day to 1950s Waco, TX, to the dawn of time is like stepping outside onto the porch, or crossing the street. At one point Jessica Chastain’s character asks in a whispered prayer, “Where were you?” (alluding to a pain and sorrow she’s experiencing) and the next moment we’re at the creation of the universe. Is that a literal answer to her question, or perhaps a reference to the verse from Job which opens the movie (38:4,7).

The film is kind of like a visual concert. The film that comes to mind that seems most like this is Alan Parker’s 1982 film Pink Floyd: The Wall. If you’ve ever seen that psychological cinema trip, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Tree of Life is kind of like a classical music and operatic version of that. (I should say another apt comparison is the ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oh, here’s another comparison that really comes close. It’s like a 2+ hour version of  Chris Milk’s “Last Day Dream.”)

That’s the most of a review I will give. But I will share with you a valuable lesson I learned as a film watcher that I think is worth sharing. This film (and others like it), are best experienced if you give yourself permission to let go. Give yourself permission to allow the feelings you start having to work their way through your bones, your heart, your flesh, and your mind. Don’t fight it. And I assure you…you should feel SOMETHING when you watch it.

  • If you’ve every been mad at God
  • If you’ve ever asked “Is God real?”
  • If you’ve ever hated a parent
  • If you’ve ever loved a parent…deeply
  • If you’ve ever dealt with profound loss
  • If you have a close relationship with a sibling
  • If you hate your sibling(s)
  • If you’ve ever dealt with the pain of regret at not pursuing your dreams

If any of these feelings are ones you’ve particularly experienced, Tree of Life will mark you. As a filmmaker, I marveled at it’s stunning cinematography (it will be the upset of the century if this film doesn’t take best cinematography at the Oscars). As a father I could understand Brad Pitt’s character’s desire for his boys to be strong men, despite the fact the way he goes about it borders abusive. (thank goodness I don’t think I’m nearly as dysfunctional as his character seems to be.). As a husband, I connected to Jessica Chastain’s mother and the special relationship she shares with her sons (very similar to what I see between my wife and our son). As a Christian, I can’t help but be moved by the questions of faith the film espouses. The film opens with a verse from the book of Job, and the issues it deals with are literally parallel to that of the biblical character. God, where were you when sorrow hit?” Even if you claim no faith in God, I bet there may have been times when a version of that question entered your mind.

This screenshot from the movie says so much!

One last thing I appreciate about this film is Malick’s commitment to his vision. Kevin Shahinian gave some great advice about this yesterday. Tree of Life is a film that is about 20+ years in the making (if you consider the original ruminations of Malick’s ideas). It’s truly amazing when you consider that this is only the FIFTH directed feature film from Malick. The first in six years since his 2005 film New World, which was seven years after Thin Red Line, which was TWENTY years after the critically acclaimed “Days of Heaven.” The fact that he’s made so few films, yet has achieved such a level of esteem and respect is a testament no doubt, to his commitment to his vision and excellence. I admire and am inspired by that.

I believe we can become better film makers if we learn to be better film watchers. You owe it to yourself as a filmmaker to rent this film or add it to your Qwikster Netflix queue.

Bold Prediction

I’m going to go out on a limb. As weird and untraditional as this film is, I’m predict it will take best picture at next year’s Oscars.

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11 thoughts on “Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and a Lesson in Film Watching

  1. I gotta see this. I’ve heard so much good, and yes bad. I know Mallick can be tough to to stomach so i’m prepared. I personally am a fan (maybe other that New World). I do however hope it does not win best picture. Best pictures tend to be forgotten immediately. At least lately.

    1. I would think if you’re a Mallick fan, you’ll love this. And regardless of whether or not it wins best picture, this film won’t quickly be forgotten. I only wish it had played in a theater close enough to me where I could’ve seen it on the big screen. I’m hoping they’ll re-release it prior to Oscars to give it more play time.

      1. I’m going to rent it tonight. I love Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven and Badlands. I heard about the whole history of the world thing from a buddy who got to see it in the theatre in Chicago and he said it was awesome.

  2. Waco representin’!

    I, too, was very touched by the movie. Although I did have a problem with Sean Penn walking through a door that was mysteriously in the middle of a canyon. Every film student has that cliche shot in their senior project…but mostly in a field…with, perhaps, a typewriter or record player off to the side.

    1. I think that canyon represented a vision into the afterlife. Or something like that. I’m sure Malick would really appreciate you comparing Tree of Life to a film student project. 😉

  3. I was shocked by the use of something I considered a cliche. At least he didn’t have a horror scene with little kids voices, a creepy creature that moves in jumpcuts, a cool person walking away from an explosion without looking back, or a “stick the landing” kung fu move (0:48 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVrGMnk5E_M)

    However, he might’ve done the “stretch your hand out the car window and do the dolphin with the passing breeze.” Can’t remember.

  4. I am in awe of this film. I am humbled. I had planned to blog about it before I saw it earlier this year. I have sat down many times to attempt it, but to no avail. Now that it is out on Blue Ray, I have watched it 3 times in it’s entirety and the creation sequence many times (I often put on the creation sequence just to fill the house with that great soundtrack).

    The truth is, I see something new every time I watch it. I get it, I feel it, but I do believe I will be a student of this film for the rest of my life. I have had many deep and rewarding conversations with friends and colleagues about this film. I think I’d better just leave it at that…

  5. I think what Malick does, just within scenes as a filmmaker, is amazing. He doesn’t do coverage and he doesn’t do overly long takes, but the scenes flow so well. He cuts unexpectedly and always uses sounds to work as transitions. The shots feel organic but the angles and lenses he uses all mean something. The film is so modern, with fast steadicam push ins, fast pace scenes(trust me Tree of Life is fast paced) and the way he uses the camera’s POV. Some shots in the movie seem to be a POV of a spirit, the camera floats around, it tracks from odd distances, it’s a spectator. And at other points it obviously POV of the kid. Then in the last scenes(in heaven I guess you could call it) his POV is ambigious. Another thing he does in this film that is crazy to think about but he repeats shots so slighly that I didn’t notice them the first couple of times. But they matter and the more I think about the film the more the placement of shots is so important. Like push in’s through trees, and a three second shot of the brother disappearing behind a house, or the sun dissapearing in the frame(which happens a couple times). Thin Red Line and New World did a lot of these tricks, he almost composites the film through the images he gets. I can’t imagine you could make a film like this from a storyboard, this is all pure cinema verite on a level never seen.

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