The Tree of Life – God is in the details

June 5, 2011

First things first. I’m an atheist. I don’t know what Terrence Malick’s beliefs are, but my feelings are this film is more philosophy than spiritual. Doesn’t mean it can’t be interpreted any way you want, or that the effect on the viewer is any less valid regardless of your belief system (unless you hated the film, in which case your opinion is invalid).

I was fearful going in to see this because I had been tainted by others who had a negative reaction to seeing it. I didn’t read any reviews for it, but I heard comments that didn’t give me hope. You see, we need a Terrence Malick film to be good. In fact, it needs to be better than good. It should be “gooder.” There is so much rancid shit out there in the theaters, such a void of creativity and art, that I require the work of America’s cinema poet to transcend.

Did Terry transcend? Did he earn the Palm d’Or? I say yes. Will your average moviegoer enjoy this film? HELLS NO!! Why? Because your average moviegoer thinks Harry Potter is great literature (it’s the opposite of that; ungreat). The only reason Americans will go see it on its opening weekend is because it won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and more importantly, it’s the new Brad Pitt movie. That’s right, not a Malick film, but a Brad Pitt movie. Peasants. At the end of my 2nd screening of the film, a man a few seats away said out loud how boring he thought it was. My reaction was to say out loud: “Fuck you.”

Now, Terrence Malick isn’t for everyone, and I accept that. You “normals” shouldn’t feel dumb or unsophisticated because you “just don’t get” Malick’s appeal, or think Terry is being overly self-indulgent. You should feel shame. Shame that you find a film boring where you have to put actual thought into experiencing it. You would rather go see The Hangover 2 and call it “great.”

But Uncle Curmy, isn’t that a double standard? Why is it ok for you to condemn a movie we enjoy, but we can’t say anything negative about what you enjoy?

…………………………………………….Shut up! This is my site, so I say there is no double standard, I just have standards.

The Tree of Life does have detractors among critics, so it’s not a complete home run for Terry. In fact, a friend of mine who’s an actual paid critic for a real city newspaper, described the movie to me as “Awful.” Now, I tend to agree with a lot of this guy’s cinematic opinions (except for his inexplicable love for They All Laughed), but in this case I have to respectfully disagree.


Why don’t you show us any respe…


As I said, I’ve seen The Tree of Life twice so far. I liked it even more on my 2nd viewing because I could pay attention to different things. Certain things that I was confused by the first time around were more clear, and I’m sure when I see it again, I’ll discover something new. That’s what good cinema should do.
So what is The Tree of Life about? I suppose in a nutshell it’s about the struggle of nature and grace fover innocence. It’s how nature formed and grace came from it (or maybe vice versa depending on your belief system).

Brad Pitt is nature, and Jessica Chastain is grace. Hunter McCracken (sounds made up) is innocence. Nature is harsh and can be cruel, but it is not malevolent. Nature can also be forgiving and full of beauty.

Grace is a smoking hot red head. Is that sexist (or just accurate)? Jessica Chastain has a face that I could watch emote all day.

She reminded me of Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc.


She doesn’t have to say anything. It’s all in her face. I hope to see more of Miss Chastain, and that she won’t be destroyed by Hollywood like so many other promising actors have been.

Then we have young Hunter McCracken representing innocence. “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me.” That’s one of Malick’s poetic voice over lines. It’s how the characters speak in their heads (or it could be in our heads), but it’s not how they speak in real life. The characters actually act and talk like real people. Young Hunter (and the boys playing his brothers) are all very good and portray actual children. If you’ve paid attention you’d know I have a real pet peeve about Hollywood movie kids. They are never real kids. They don’t speak like real kids, or act like them. If you want to see true children in films, you have to go outside the USA. Sean Penn plays the grown up version of Hunter’s Jack. He’s only in a few scenes, but you see what Jack has grown into and that he still struggles.

A friend of mine liked the way this film represented childhood. He felt it honestly portrayed what being a kid was about. Kids having fun. Kids loving and hating their parents. Kids being little bastards. Kids feeling guilt. I liked how the film presented memory to me. We don’t tend to remember long scenes of past events, but fractured moments and images that have burned themselves into our brains.

There’s this one scene I really love where the family is in town, and the boys see a man drunkenly cross the street. The boys find it amusing and imitate him, having a grand old time. Next they see a disabled man crossing a street and this time the funny walk isn’t so funny. Then they see some men being arrested. One is a big scary, angry man (nature?), and another is frail and frightened (fall from grace?) who is offered kindness by the boys’ mother. This scene isn’t linear, as in they boys see these things one after another, but it’s fractured over time and shows a progression from childlike feelings of amusement to guilt to fear. I can relate.

This brings me to something else. I think it may be more successful with folks who find correlations between their own lives and this film. Maybe not, but I definitely drew parallels while watching. I knew some kids who had died in terrible ways. I wasn’t witness to the events, but knew people who were and had the tragedies told to me in horrible detail (that pretty much scarred my 8 year old self for life) I did bad things as a kid that I felt great guilt about later (I still feel bad about killing my brother’s crawdad). I certainly know what having a hard father can be like. I was locked out on the porch many a time during dinner. I too wished the universe to kill him sometimes (when it finally did, I was not so happy with myself). You come to learn that what you hate in a parent is the same thing you hate in you.

I also feel this film will have more resonance with people who have kids or are at least around them. I don’t have my own, but am very close my nieces and nephew and have watched them grow since they hatched. When you’ve experienced seeing their little baby feet for the first time, or when they sleep on your chest, or when you treat their booboos, there’s a sympathy you feel with what you’re seeing onscreen. There are images in this film that are true poetry (aww, who am I kidding? every image is poetry).

Now, it certainly sounds like I’m gushing and think the film is perfect. Well, there are some things that did bug me. I was not a fan of Terry’s use of the cosmic beam for the bell sounds early in the film. He already used it in The Thin Red Line, and I associate that sound with that film. Some of the CGI looked too CGI for my tastes. I wanted his dinosaurs to be the best looking dinosaurs ever. Granted, he doesn’t have Spielberg money, so maybe I should cut him some slack. Some of the effects are truly amazing, and I know Douglas Trumbull was consulted on how to do some of the practical special effects (it’s not all digital), and I really enjoyed seeing some old school techniques (they still look better than CGI). Some people hate the space stuff and feel it unnecessary and self-indulgent. Maybe. But it worked for me. Terrence Malick is a true artist and not a poseur like Oliver Stone or Joe Wright. I’ve said before that I can feel the filmmaker’s intent, and know the difference between an honest moment and just throwing feces to see what sticks (obviously this is just interpretation. I have no actual knowledge of the filmmaker’s intent (but I’m probably right)).

The film also has a little problem with too many endings. Or what I felt were endings. There were a few times when I thought “That’s a great ending. I’m jealous. Oh wait, there’s more.” It’s kinda like Return of the King in this way. I certainly liked all the images I was seeing, but there were a couple montage moments that gave me an “editor chubby” and I wished the film had stopped there.

There is also the issue of Terry seeming redundant. The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life all seem to share a similar theme of man and nature. I think The Thin Red Line is his best, but the more I see of the others, I like them more and more. This is certainly Terry’s oeuvre, and more Malick is certainly better than none since no one can do what he’s doing (not in the USA at least).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Curtis June 8, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Nice post my friend. Glad to see you finally got to – or chose to – write a post about a movie you truly enjoyed. We’re getting to know you more as you reveal what you react positively to in films. Especially when they are ones we are actually going to see.

I disagree however that someone is a “Peasant” if they don’t refer to the movie as a “Malick” film. Is Malick really a “household name” that if I tell 10 of my friends I am going to the new Malick film all 10 of them will know exactly who I am talking about? And if they all did, would -you- really like Malick as much as you do? At least Brad was a Producer on this film so you can fairly associate Pitt with this being “his” film too. :)

And leave Oliver Stone alone! ;)


Uncle Curmy June 8, 2011 at 6:47 pm


They’re “peasants” for not wanting to learn. I take my theater going experience more serious than the average Joe. I suppose an example would be if I were talking to a Red Sox fan and I’m like: “That’s baseball right? That’s the team Derek Jeter plays for?” You can bet that Sox fan would blow a gasket.


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