Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick‘s Tree of Life is as exquisite a journey of celestial wanderings as it is burdened by terrestrial design, flawed in its pursuit of complexity, finally succumbing to a monastic’s dream of eternity.  Where gentle stillness pervades the senses, nurturing our natural curiosity for the unknowable densities of the universe, the love of a child’s burgeoning curiosity cannot sustain both naiveté on the verge of change and omniscient narrator of eminent domain, leaving us to the devices of the filmmaker’s grandiosity.  Pricked by the thorns of well intentions, detoured by lofty maneuverings, the characters are stifled, stunted breaths that cannot bleed or come into knowing that which can only be perceived –  that the reclusive spirit cannot ascend without first having realized unselfish love – hardly possible in a film devoid of linearity and cogency.  Perhaps it is this, after all is said and written about Tree that will endure; so much tenderness and care as if a light shown in a cavernous ravine, revealing a boy that hides from his own demise, what the filmmaker knows but cannot speak in air so he shows, illusive piety, chipped as if alabaster reflecting tears of joy.  Where Tree of Life takes us and detours the same will depend entirely on the viewer, our willingness to let go of conventional, forgo film tradition of story and plot, characters in varying shades of change and damaged, the wounded learning how to live and those destined for elsewhere.  With a film that makes no effort to persuade us to this far away different place, the danger is as one would expect, of alienation and pretense, undermining Saturday night movies for some kind of wonderful something that is not a movie as we know it or perhaps, even want it to be.

In all practicality, to be first considerate of mainstream sensibilities, I cannot recommend Tree of Life to many, perhaps only a few, because it lingers too long on sentiment, loses track and starts over, has no real sense of momentum or purpose.  I would only suggest it to a few, maybe less for the sake of exploration, not for story per say or for characters that change like you do or maybe just how you want them too.  Despite those who preface Tree with many instructive preparations, suggestions on how to view or simply what to do with it, such pandering only furthers the divide between movies as entertainment, movies as escape ships from the doomed mother-ships of our lives careening into the atmospheric shores of mendacity and mediocrity, and movies that attempt to capture the fleeting jetsam and flotsam of our mortality only to fail spectacularly.  A film is a film by its ability to engage, alone, as it is and not by which we are told it is, by the conveyance of story constructed of photographed images and sounds of a certain length, containing characters and a sense of time, place and purpose.  Otherwise it is a cardboard box of dented flaps and tattered purpose, empty except for that which you put in it instead of for that which it offers, an invitation for the treasure of discovery inside.

I was fully prepared for Tree in the same way I followed Malick’s Badlands into the Thin Red Line, prepared for the importance of stillness and mood, for the lengthy moments of introspection and verisimilitude.  I came ready for love of minutia like the way Jarmusch is obsessed with four-wall rooms of mundane, Lynch makes doodle bug empires only so that he can jam down his heel into their worship of him.  Drawn to Tree, the revelry of distant chances, I waited for the collision of Pitt and Penn together for what it promised – only to see it disappear or never appear at all, hardly there when it was, not even sock puppet shadows, only marionettes, strings the weight of anchors.  Perhaps it was my own fault after all, my damnable expectations sneaking into the theater with me, crowding me, elbows sharp against my belly as we fought one another for the best part of popcorn – the kernels – surely the tastiest morsels of all.  I will concede to my own misgivings and purposefulness, the ruined chance to escape into Malick’s wounded worlds of broken, beautiful people and get caught up there, lost midst shifting sands of discovery.  But I blame Tree most of all as it washed over me in those first minutes and with each moment beyond that my eyes burned and my hands clutched the chair for meaning, for a thread of narrative being.  Instead my every desire for more than this, for some semblance of ordered narrative in place of order of the immeasurable, intangible – how I would have wished for even the slightest of coherency and tactful discourse.  Instead, rooted there in 1950s Texas, choking on the antithesis of plot, struggling as if pinned under water, nostrils filling with sharp water, eyes that cannot see but cannot think to close, skin electrical, my thoughts bore down on me, smothering me, blotting out worlds for hours of fleeting nothingness leaving me stranded there piqued, prostrated, pastiche.

To enjoy Tree one must first cleanse the palate of familiar film formalities, wash tasty ruminations of former indulgences away, replace them with minty obscurities and such techniques – or like rambling metaphors and superciliousness, burn them in effigy with fiery red and orange pepper distractions, your expectations, and maybe then it will at least have been something before so much nothing.  I choked on moments in and could not pass.  I did not enjoy the hodgepodge nor did I find it particularly whimsical, lacking looseness all together, a structuralist’s nightmare and everyday moviegoers bane.  Tree of Life is a contradiction of clarity and heedlessly scatters characters in some kind of fractured reality and time, no universe we know or have access to, no universe that welcomes the hapless traveler, rather crushes her in diffused shards of impermanence desperate for a container of meaning, lost like light of sunset, dusk burdened by a night sky of blue-black indifference.  Tree of Life doesn’t exist so much as it just is, like a dying star destined for over, unable and uninterested in solace, consumed with oblivion.  Terrence Malick suggests grandness is a vehicle for molecular time travel but fails to realize so much space is to specificity as forlorn expression is to hope and change, muted in silences, devoured by the empty, suggesting creatio ex nihilo (depth from air).


About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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14 Responses to Tree of Life (2011)

  1. Nostra says:

    This is one of the few movies where I really didn’t know how to rate it, part of me didn’t like it at, but at the same time it looked amazing. I concluded that the perfect fit would be if this movie would be played in a museum….

    • rorydean says:

      Ha, perfect – love that, in a museum. I so wanted to enjoy it, what it could have been, the wasted potential though pretty much overshadowing all. Thanks for dropping by. Cheers0.

  2. Mark Walker says:

    Wow! Now that’s a poetic rant if ever I read one Rory. Excellent stuff here bro. Just excellent. I, however, absolutely loved this movie. I took it all from the perspective of the microcosm and macrocosm. It just blew me away.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey! Thanks for noticing! I figured early on, actually sometime shortly after watching this one, or rather struggling to ‘watch it’ and not just throw popcorn at the screen, that I had better find a way into it if I was going to say anything at all. I guess I found a long, rocky road around the mountain to write about it, but poetic just felt like I could maybe make it enjoyable to read even while I was dropping rocks on Malick’s baby. I definitely see your point of perspective, and that’s really what’s going to matter at the end of the day – this is very much a film that is going to be personal, or it should be, and it’s either going to resonant or fade away. Obviously we’re at either end of the ravine on this one. Did you cover it? Heading over now to see. Thanks again..

      • Mark Walker says:

        Regardless of your opinion of it I loved your reading your review. I did cover a while ago but I forget myself exactly what I wrote. I’ll need to head back myself to have a look. I Jay remember praising it highly and rating it one of the best of the year.

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  4. rorydean says:

    Yeah, go check out Mark’s review of this film for a different perspective:

  5. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Rory. This movie is so just so beautiful to look at that it almost didn’t matter what type of story it had because either way, I was going to be amazed. Thankfully, the story, once it got going and away from those damn dinosaurs, was compelling and added much more to the final-product. I just wish Sean Penn’s character was given so much more to do.

    • rorydean says:

      I can’t agree more, definitely a lovingly realized film but nonetheless hardly a story to be found, much less character development. I just wanted this film to be so much more than it was, something, anything even remotely like Thin Red Line, more Bad Lands, just more narrative and story and less expansive meanderings. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Rory hello.SUCH a great and right on review.I posted this and here is what I wrote on my wall:
    Filmaker writer and director and journalist Rory Dean’s review on The Tree Of Life, is spot on in my opinion…..Grandiose, and in a simple poetic mode.But too much.Watching this fiilm for me was like meeting an extremely gorgeous person who is poetic, and you want and wait to find some perfect facet or nuance that will weld your “like” comfort zone.But you jsut keep waiting and it makes you not want to trust…..Does taht comparison to this film make anysense?????I like The Thin Red Line better.
    Please read Rory Dean’s review and BECOME A FAN.You cannot go wrong.James

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks so much for the redirect and kind words Jim. You always bring insight and perspective to my film reviews and art endeavors.

      This film was just such a disappointment that I had a hard time reviewing it for a long time afterwards. I even tried a second time to embrace it for what it is, not for all the things I wanted it to be or how much I felt like it was a failure in effort and meaningful escape. Ah well, maybe next time Mr. Malick.

      I hope one day you will return and hash out with me one of my reviews that you disagree with. That would make for some interesting fodder.


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