The Tree of Life – Review

Worth seeing: for those who love Terrence Malick's beautiful, slow-burning imagery, who don't require too much narrative or emotion
Director:Terrence Malick
Featuring:Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Hunter McCracken, Jackson Hurst, Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan
Length:139 minutes
Released:8th July 2011


In the beginning, God created the universe. Then he made stars and planets. Then he put life on earth – not sure about other planets, but certainly on earth, as we see it developing in The Tree of Life; firstly, it’s microbial, then there are dinosaurs – some kill each other, but others develop a moral code and allow rivals to live, it seems.

Some time after that, humans appear on earth – including 1950s Waco, Texas couple, the O’Briens. Dad (Brad Pitt) and Mum (Jessica Chastain) start having children – three boys, each of whom starts as a baby and then gets older.

Dad is a bit firm with the boys, while Mum is so passive as to be almost angelic.

The boys usually do what they’re told, but sometimes they don’t.

One of them died. The rest are very sad. Dad reassesses whether he was right to have been so strict.

Some years later, at least one of the sons, Jack (Sean Penn), is still alive and working as an architect, but doesn’t seem to be at all content with his existence.

So – what’s it about? Life, I suppose; how everything started with the birth of the universe, goes through the birth of the planet, the birth of people to the death of some people before the deaths of others – and how the way we act and react depends on our previous experiences, the actions of those around us and our aspirations for the future.


Terrence Malick doesn’t make films very often, delivering, now, his fifth in four decades. His earliest films in the 1970s – Badlands and Days of Heaven – won him critical acclaims and some high profile awards and nominations. The Thin Red Line, in he late 1990s, took him to the next level, with two Oscar nominations.

Terrence Malick is a director – an auteur – you can’t ignore. But while it used to be impossible to ignore him because he was a visionary and inspirational film-maker, now it has become impossible to ignore him because his sense of self-importance seems to have taken him into the realms of delusion.

It does not help that the establishment is encouraging him; awarding the Palme d’Or to The Tree of Life feels very much like a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

In discussing the film with those who’ve seen it, on almost every point, everyone agrees – it’s astonishingly beautiful with a rousing score and perfectly creditable performances from the 1950s family, although it’s very slow and any sense of a narrative is almost entirely absent. Now, some see this as thought-provoking perfection in film-making while others are irritated by its inaccessability and see it as woefully deficient.

What do we learn about existence? That it started with a big bang, planets were created, animals put on them, humans developed and some people die young but others are still alive several decades later. I knew all of that before I went in.

We don’t get to follow the family through any sense of a story, because there’s little information about the boy’s death, before we flash-back to what we think is going to lead up to the death, but doesn’t – we also expect, when we meet the older son in his adult life, that the way he is will reflect the childhood we have witnessed, but we don’t learn enough about the older Jack to be able to make any kind of judgements about him at all.

So with nothing to learn about the human condition from the scenes that purport to be dramatic, the success of the film depends on the cinematic poetry that remains. There are wonderful images, many of them, partly real and partly computer generated (I’m not sure that he really sent a camera back to the big bang or indeed the Jurassic period), sequentially describing the seeds of existence and how life branches off into plants, animals, humans and so on, like – go figure – a tree of life.

Accepting this literal interpretation of what we see on screen renders this two and a half hour film little more than a piece of video art that would be welcome, playing over and over again on a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall like a picture-frame. Bored of doing your washing-up or your accounts or your sudoku, you could glance up to treat your eyes to some spectacular whirling clouds of colourful cosmic gasses or dramatic ice-scapes before clicking your mind back into gear.

With very little dialogue, apart from some supposedly profound philosophising voice-overs which won’t – or shouldn’t – particularly add to your understanding, this is a visual treat – almost certain of a cinematography Oscar nomination – and an audio pleasure – but don’t let it tax your mind and don’t hold out for the strands to come together, because they won’t – and you don’t have to pretend you’ve worked it out to make people think you’re intelligent.

People who like this film – or claim to – are enjoying the experience – being immersed in someone else’s stream of consciousness – they enjoying being forced to think and don’t mind if a satisfying journey doesn’t take them anywhere.

But for doubting Thomases, the pretentious means don’t justify the unenlightening ends – some people need a story – a purpose. Driving around in a comfortable car, but ending up back where you started, is a waste of time and a waste of petrol.

Brian Cox’s documentaries about the origins of the universe and Sir David Attenborough’s programmes about zoology and anthropology contain similar images but more of a coherent structure and a clearer message.

I’m not quite sure what Terrence Malick feels is new about The Tree of Life.

The universe was born, the Earth was born, people are born, they live for a bit and die. I knew all of that already.

I’ve seen strict fathers, doting mothers and cheeky children before. I’ve even seen dinosaurs on the big and small screen, although I haven’t seen them have second thoughts about killing each other before.
I’ve seen Brian Cox documentaries and Sir David Attenborough programmes.

Putting them all together into one interminably slow cinema experience demands a lot of patience and I’m not sure that it deserves it.

But for those who do enjoy it, there is potentially some good news; even though Malick has given us only five films in four decades, you won’t need much patience for his next magnum opus as – perhaps buoyed by the response to his new suit – the emperor is due to be showing off another new outfit next year.