Contrarian Corner takes on Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life': My head hurts

Last week, I wrote a review of Terrence Malick’s latest star-studded art film, The Tree of Life. I didn’t like it. Actually, I kind of hated it. And for my sins, some ew.com commenters tarred me “a philistine”, “a dips—,” and “dense”. Which I’m totally fine with, by the way (he said, reaching for the Kleenex). Seriously, I knew when I wrote my review that I was in the minority on the film — its 84 percent Rotten Tomatoes positive rating proved that much. Still, watching Malick’s admitedly easy-on-the-eyes epic felt like the Emperor’s New Clothes to me. In the end, for me at least, its ravishing, museum-quality images added up to a big fat goose egg. Maybe you agree with me. Maybe you think I’m a dips—, too. Either way, let’s air this sucker out in the judgement-free confines of this week’s installment of the Contrarian Corner.

Let me start off by saying that I have nothing personally against Terrence Malick. I’m sure he’s a lovely fellow who could run intellectual circles around me and kick my butt at Trivial Pursuit. Plus, I loved his 1973 debut Badlands, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young thrill-kill couple on the lam. I was even mildly hypnotized by the sun-dappled amber waves of grain in his 1978 follow-up Days of Heaven. But over the span of his last three films (1998’s The Thin Red Line, 2005’s The New World, and now The Tree of Life), I’ve started to lose my patience with the reclusive director’s increasingly distancing and idiosyncratic narratives with their dreamy, whispered voiceovers appealing to God. Clearly, he’s making personal films that mean something deep to him. He’s artisanally hand-crafted a mere five films over the past 38 years. And the glacial pace of his output is proof that he thinks long and hard about what he says before he says it. But I’m starting to feel like what he’s saying is nothing more than an existential knock-knock joke that has no punchline. (And by the way, I’ve also started to lose patience with people patronizingly telling me that I just don’t get Malick’s films, like I’m some nose-picking simpleton like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons.) Seriously, I don’t think I’m asking too much for a movie to be more than just a collection of spiritual heaviosity and eye-candy imagery. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d also like if that film had some sort of narrative.

Apparently, I’m not alone. After The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, one of its stars, Sean Penn, told a French newspaper, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” See, even Sean Penn is stumped and he was in the damn thing!

For those who haven’t seen The Tree of Life yet, the movie is mostly set in Texas in the 1950s, where a stern, bull-necked Brad Pitt plays a tough-love father to three young sons. One of them grows up to be an architect played by Penn. Pitt’s wife is played by Jessica Chastain, who is a wonderful actress and who possesses the face of a silent-film actress. She manages to say more in silence than just about any movie star I can think of. Which is a good thing, because Malick’s movie is almost a silent movie. Seriously, the script must have been about eight pages long. What story there is is largely told through images and characters asking questions to God like, “Who are we to you?” Aside from the largely dialogue-free domestic drama that unspools, Malick connects the past and present with a series of hauntingly beautiful shots of nature. Volcanoes spewing lava. Hubble telescope-like shots of the cosmos. And, most infamously, a couple of CGI dinosaurs snapping at each other by a creek.

First things first: the nature shots. They look great, but I have no idea what they’re doing in this movie. Watching them, I couldn’t stop thinking, I wonder what Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are up to, right now? Maybe they’re having a smoke somewhere waiting for Malick to remember that he’s paying them to act in a movie. Can we get back to them? Honestly, if I wanted to watch spiraling galaxies and picturesque dwarf planets, I could’ve saved ten bucks and watched Nova on PBS. As for the dinosaurs… well, let’s put aside whatever point Malick’s trying to make about the compassionate nature of all of God’s creations or whatever he was trying to convey, and just say this: they’re ridiculous. I’ve seen better CGI in SyFy movies like Dinocroc Vs. Supergator. Remember how some people tuned out when it started raining frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia? This is like that times a million.

It’s entirely possible that years from now after watching The Tree of Life a seventh or eighth time, something will click inside my brain and I’ll finally “get it.” Until that day comes, though, I’m not buying what he’s selling.

So what do you think? You have an open invitation to vent in the Comments section below. Just remember, “dips—” has already been used.

Read more:
EW Review: ‘Tree of Life’
More Contrarian Corners from PopWatch

Comments (51 total) Add your comment
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  • mephysto

    I still have not seen it.. even though I want to.. But I remember watching the Thin Red Line and I liked that movie a lot, however, I do think that Malick’s films tend to require a certain mood in order to enjoy them… I don’t know, I am a dips@t movie snub too I guess

  • Regina George

    These Contrarian things are pretty funny. Keep up the good work EW! Haha.

  • tg

    It’s funny to read this, because it seems you did understand the film, you just didn’t like it and you feel stupid because you didn’t because it may imply that you’re not arty enough. If you didn’t like it so what? :Plenty of other people did, or lied better about it than you have. I liked it, but I like movies about our relationship to things bigger than ourselves. I also like XMen. They’re just movies. Malick is entitled to make them the way he wishes. Some people will like them, others will not. Always been that way.

  • scott

    Excellent take, my friend. Cinematographic beauty, but it is more a pinting than a movie.

  • Samantha

    I have no desire to see any Brad Pitt movie and after the stinker that was Benjamin Button, I’m sure I’d agree with you on this one!

    • Shannon

      Thank you! I do not understand his appeal and he annoys the living crap out of me everytime he opens his mouth.

  • E.B. Berman

    I kind of enjoyed Malick’s narrative-free bent in THIN RED… but couldn’t quite get into NEW WORLD or TREE… either. I liked the family scenes in TREE, but I agree the macro-view was impossibly vague, dense, opaque . . . They are – as everyone agrees – gorgeous to look at and I do still tend to like them as change-of-pace moviegoing experiences. Still, I’m glad no one but Malick is trying to make movies this way.

  • Lucía

    AMEN, Chris!!
    You just put into words what I’ve been thinking for weeks now… I guess I don’t feel like nobody understands me anymore.

  • Marten

    Yeah, I hate to be that guy, but you don’t seem to get it. You’re looking for a narrative? If you can’t follow the plot to Tree of Life, I recommend Clifford books to you. Sean Penn’s brother dies in Vietnam, later he lights a candle to remember him, we flash back to his childhood and see how he grew up, he doesn’t understand his father who’s so hard on him, at the end his father apologizes for being so hard on him, they move away, as a man Sean Penn has just lost his father, travels to heaven to meet his family, comes back to Earth an awakened man. Not hard to follow at all. There’s your narrative, that’s the story. If you have a problem with philosophy in general, which apparently you do, then don’t watch Malick films. Stick to Jason Strathem and Vin Diesel. I hear Fast Five is out on Blu-Ray go watch that.

    • Peter

      You’re not a dip___, Chris. You’re just someone whose sensibilities are appropriate for PopWatch and EW.com, which is to say, not for serious art.

    • Lola

      Amen.

    • SlackerInc

      This is exactly the “Emperor’s New Clothes” problem the OP was referring to. You are trying to intimidate people from expressing their dislike of this film by making a straw men out of them. If they “don’t get it”, they must be Philistines who can only handle mainstream popcorn flicks.

      Well, guess what? It’s a little more complicated than that. I’m looking right now at my list of five star rated films on Netflix, and it includes such titles as the 1928 silent classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, Kurosawa’s meditation on mortality “Ikiru”, and–like the OP–Malick’s own debut “Badlands”. But this one just fell flat. Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist, and not at all “spiritual”, but all the whispering about God just felt so portentious, completely lacking in subtlety. It was pseudo-intellectual mystical mumbo jumbo, Crackerjack philosophy by the numbers.

      Yes, the visuals were good as always with Malick. Maybe he should just do a straight up visually oriented film like “Baraka” (another of my faves). The mix here though just didn’t work.

  • srkim102

    my best friend’s mom makes $77 an hour on the computer. She has been out of job for 9 months but last month her check was $7487 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read about it here LazyCash4 DOT co_m

    • Dave

      I’d rather be taken in by this scam than have to sit through a pretentious Malick film.

  • Helena

    I was wondering if I was just a cynic but seems I am not alone in my response to this film. After 2 hours I kept wondering when it would end. How many more dreamy shots of lovely ladies (no fat ones!) walking down the beach with flowing dresses shot at a low angle before I just ejected the disk? Ohhhh…….

  • Vincent Nagle

    He is making Icons, in the Christian Orthodox sense, just the way that Tarkovsky did with his films. If you watch it with that sense of openness, awe and waiting, the things emerge, deeply, powerfully, memorable and transformatively. takes getting used to.

    • brennan

      thank you marten although i dont think his dad died cause that day he was talking to him on the phone in the elevator but the mom did kiss an old hand when they were in the afterlife. crap for not having a non linear narrative as if thats a bad thing or wrong, not every movie needs a solid beginning middle end that follows plot structure. it is a IMPRESSIONISTIC film that is not trying to be the average movie (not in a bad way just a beg/mid/end movie) so why do u insist on comparing its elements to one? if you watch closely and look for symbolism and immerse yourself then it will be alot more enjoyable. you are really over thinking it its really simple and if you have an open mind and can see all different points it attempts to make it is a pretty cool EXPERIENCE which is emphasized in its marketing. You are trying to watch it on the standards of every other movie when it clearly isnt. and terrence malick would bring 3 pages of single spaced pages to work that had ideas, quotes, images etc on it and they would shoot them and say them and be really improvisionational, telling the kids to just play and record them, the butterfly scene just happened when a butterfly landed on jessica chastains arm. so under those conditions you have to watch it with a different mindset or you are going to see it in this light. it simply is a movie about life and some of the questions you face and how we are all connected by mystical forces that we cannot control. give it 10-20 years when the rest of the world catches up and itll be hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made….citizen kane didnt even win best picture when it first came out. “Seriously, I don’t think I’m asking too much for a movie to be more than just a collection of spiritual heaviosity and eye-candy imagery. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d also like if that film had some sort of narrative.” There are millions of movies like this, sorry there was one that wasnt

  • JohnRace

    “Still, watching Malick’s admitedly easy-on-the-eyes epic felt like the Emperor’s New Clothes to me.”

    And by the way, I’ve also started to lose patience with people patronizingly telling me that I just don’t get Malick’s films, like I’m some nose-picking simpleton like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons.

    You, sir, are neither alone nor nothing short of a great writer and observer. Most well put!

  • Jack Johnson

    This “review” demonstrates all that is wrong with contemporary audiences. There is a narrative, and a clear one, if you pay attention. That anyone would think of this work of true, cinematic art as “an existential knock knock joke”, well, the joke’s on you.

  • Gina

    After the fiasco of the “Brave World”, I am done watching Malick’s deeply personal, agonizingly & torturously long films. Beautiful? Absolutely. Well acted? I would say their is sincerity in the portrayals, but the pacing is all foreplay. His movies are the film equivalent to a amuse bouche disguised as the entree -gorgeous, delicate, a great “Bite”, you are left empty, dreaming of what could have been. I know art is subjective but I am not buying this pretty pretty pile of symbolism.

  • Sam N

    I had read plenty about this film before seeing it in the theater, so I knew what to expect. Still, I couldn’t contain my laughter, nor could the small handful of others in the theater for this colossal flop. When it was over, somebody loudly said “Thank God!”. It was even more absurb than THE NEW WORLD, and that’s saying something.

    • Matthew

      That is really funny Sam. I had the same experience watching the film in Phoenix. As the credits rolled, someone said “Thank God!” meaning “Thank God this is over!”

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