Eye of the Beholder: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

July 8, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 23 5 min read

“The drop is a small ocean.”

“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés.  That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them.  As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”
Terrence Malick

Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting.  Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous.  A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of “higher” culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes.  Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History.  It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.”  All of this is fair game, I think.  Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”

In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it).  The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure.  It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or.  Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.”  Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.”  This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant.

I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry – it’s almost impossible to give anything away.  Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term “arc” just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own.  Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes.  It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this.  Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction.  There is comfort in that.  One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable.  This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight.  The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both.

The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas.  There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances.  Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl.  Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures.  This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition.  The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow.   Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence.  The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence.  Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless.  The rest is, well, the rest is the world – a glimpse at the totality of creation itself.  The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory – moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear.  Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it?

coverTerrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director.  This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind.  He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film.  The influence must have stuck with him.  There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work.  One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time.  Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit.  They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary.  Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning.  This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut.  Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight.

There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name.  Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts.  Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive.  His movies can be an experience unto themselves.  You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while.  Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed.  Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions.  Naturally, she leaves with them as well.  Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience.  All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way.  It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else.

In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe.  Not a bad way to go through life.

is an editor at The Arts Fuse whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baffler, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and other places. A longtime resident of Boston, he has recently moved to New Orleans.


  1. I haven’t seen it yet, but for similar effect, see Malick’s other great “spiritual” film, “The Thin Red Line”.

  2. The film isn’t all that baffling. It’s beautiful, lyrical and spiritually moving. People just get frustrated at non-linear narrative. See it for yourself.

  3. The skyscrapers Penn is mourning among are not those of New York. It’s clearly the Dallas skyline. Are we supposed to think it’s New York?

  4. Warm congratulations on a beautifully written, thoughtful review — I am now desperate to see the movie! As a teacher who often asks my students to ponder the relationship between the times and the arts, and as a reviewer of CanLit (a small patch, I know, but one which I hoe with stubborn determination) I have had my antennae tuned, for some time, to the “artisphere” watching for signs of a new zeitgeist, one which encompasses our indisputably new 21st century reality — a realistic response the the enormity and indifference of the world as we now know it.
    I’ll be more certain once I’ve seen it, but from your review, it seems that The Tree Of Life may reflect some of the tendencies I’ve seen in other work:
    a) an acceptance of randomness in one’s exploration of information about one’s world so vast that any systematic investigation is de facto rendered irrelevant
    b) a return to centre — a sort of secular Reformation that by-passes style gatekeepers and middlemen in favour of direct examination by the individual and therefore, a return to (at least a sense) of control. (I think the locavore movement is another facet of this tendency)
    c) an equation of “camera” with “mind or consciousness” (this has turned up, perhaps serendipitously, in two books I have reviewed recently — Miriam Toews Irma Voth and Steven Hayward’s Don’t Be Afraid — that a entirely real sense of beauty and meaning can be distilled from the unique set of random experience that is your life, but it is important to pay attention.

    Well, once could go on! :>) Again, congrats on a fascinating review.

  5. “People just get frustrated at non-linear narrative.”

    I don’t think many of the nay-sayers are frustrated by the non-linear narrative–I think it’s more the first half hour of whispers and gushing waves and sky scrapers and dinosaurs and the pretentiousness of it all (not to mention the final 15 minutes of the film, which I won’t go into). My feelings on the film are very conflicted–there are scenes in the middle third of the film that are heartbreaking and the acting performances–especially by the boys–are breathtaking, and I think any person who watches this recognizes truth from their own youth and their relationships with their own parents. But there are the painfully earnest first and last thirds of the film that wreak of narcissism and are riddled with existential cliches.

  6. Drew – all of the nine people who walked out of the movie when I saw it left during the “creation of the universe” section. Thus my reason for thinking it was the narrative.

  7. Drew,

    How can you try to dismiss something by calling it both earnest and pretentious?

  8. I’m not denying that they may have had issues with the narrative, but not necessarily the non-linear aspect of it.

  9. P.T. – I said that I was conflicted over this film–didn’t mean to “dismiss” anything.

  10. Drew,

    The specifics of what you come out against are the essentials of any of Malick’s films, so I see that as in the end coming down against his project. What doesn’t make sense is how something can be both earnest and pretentious. The two of those exclude each other.

  11. P.T. – I’m still not with you and I think you’re taking an unreasonable leap in summarizing my original message as a dismissal. As far as earnestness vs. pretentious, I understand your point, and I’m not sure I’m even clear on it–like I said, I’m very conflicted over the film. I think the ideas expressed and the emotions conveyed are painfully earnest, but the manner of the presentation at times pretentious–hammering the audience over the head for the first half an hour with sweeping visuals of waves and skyscrapers and the origin of the universe.

    I don’t really like the argument that I’m getting into here, since I think that my point is being misconstrued and I’m focusing too much on what I took away as negatives from the film. As to the “essentials of any of Malick’s films,” the aspects of the middle third of the film that I loved are every bit as essential to any of Malick’s films as strange bookends that I took issue with.

  12. Drew,

    Okay, that distinction makes a little more sense to me, even if I disagree. I think the manner of presentation is just as earnest as the ideas and emotions. For Malick the origin of the universe stuff is a deadly earnest expression of the same things you liked about the movie. I honestly think that he’s earnest the whole time, and that since we’re generally less and less used to that in film, it’s easy to see grandiosity as pretension.

    I guess I didn’t see your original comment as truly being a dismissal, but that your conflict over the film would end up there. Also, the way you aligned the pretension vs earnest in the first post seemed to make both those things negative and taking place at the same time, which sort of left me wondering.

  13. Just saw the film a third time and it’s still wonderful. Thanks for this review; it’s one of the most thoughtful I’ve read.

  14. What a lovely piece that reverently discusses Malick’s new project (and it is of course a project if we take the grand total of his films together as installations of a sort, or like a serial poem) and brings us a heightened exegesis on the film’s rather large scale. “Scale” is definitely something I’ve thought about in relation to Malick’s film world. It’s the image working in relation to the ideational, performing a dance where the viewer must necessarily negotiate meaning. For me, Malick’s film bring us closer to the ineffable. And by doing so while calling upon such a large scale of time, both in the literal film time, and the sweeping frame from genesis to modern malaise. What an achievement.

    For those who want to employ terms such as pretentious and narcissistic in relation to Malick’s project, doing so does quite a disservice to the potential resonance of any art form. It reveals a fundamental incapacity to grapple with opacity, density, artistic rigor, in any meaningful way. It simply refers to a judgment that’s based on preference and taste, much in the same way that we judge the utility of any object, etc. The question rather might be: does a work of art belong to our “immediate concerns in living.”

  15. Another thing that comes to mind for me in the “reading” of Malick’s film is its phenomenal quality. It seems to function like a tone poem, and perhaps, its philosophical sweep is all the more poignant for how the film enacts formal rupture and detour that insinuates the cut and segment of lived experience. This aesthetic encourages a viewer to see the world as larger than themselves. It is something that can be touched at its outermost edge, but not completely handled by the mind.

  16. Well Matt, you have certainly mastered the art of simultaneously saying a lot and saying very little. What a load of crap.

  17. Well Drew, perhaps you need to look a little deeper and let yourself be more thoroughly provoked by art (or a film in this case seeing that’s what this forum is about after all) rather than writing inane comments that do nothing to add to the conversation. If you want to take swings with bravado, perhaps you might do so with more artistry and class. Moreover, you might even attempt to actually say something worth being said.

  18. I, for one, am a fan of challenging, abstract, non-linear, non-“traditional” filmmaking in a big way, but Malick is like the Wizard of Oz. Behind all his puffery there is nothing but a fifth-grade faux philosophy and a lot of sloppy, bad poetry thrown together in voice-overs that would make even the least talented Surrealist poet shiver. Just take one example: the writer of this piece calls Jessica Chastain’s mother “ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures.” But the voice-over near the beginning of the film posits this dialectic: on the one side, grace, and on the other side, nature. This is set up as a sort of key to the film (and if Malick didn’t intend this to be the case, he needs to re-edit the movie and discard massive portions of the voice-overs)–it pits mom against dad, and it pits, I suppose, the “violent” beings in the universe (the dinosaur that steps on the other dinosaur, Dad and his temper, etc) against the “angels.” (Don’t mention the final 15 minutes, which is like some bad Hallmark advertisement for the common picture of heaven as a beautiful beach where all your loved ones wait for you–or wait, is that limbo? Or is it something else? Ach!) You cannot pit “grace” against “nature,” I’m sorry. You can’t imply that nature is purely vicious and violent, dog eat dog, and “grace” is, well, not natural, not part of nature, not part of life. So much of nature is filled with what we might call grace; and many things that have a kind of grace about them, also have an edge of violence or destruction. This is too simple, too pat, too ridiculous.

    To say that I need to even approach this movie in a spirit of “reverence” and “awe” is also ridiculous. I approach every piece of art (or so-called art) I in my life with the appropriate sense of eagerness and hunger…however, when there’s just “no there there” my sense of eagerness and hunger, instead of turning toward reverence and awe, turns toward irritation. This is particularly the case when almost every reviewer who talks about The Tree of Life as if it’s some kind of miraculous manifestation of pure spirituality and beauty, also goes back and refers to Malick’s “sheer genius” and mentions how “brilliant” his other films have been–including The New World and The Thin Red Line…when the fact of the matter is that at least 50% of these same people expressed clear irritation, distaste, and bafflement at both of those movies when they premiered.

    I get much more from Bela Tarr’s extremely long tracking shots of people walking in silence, or staring out of a window, with no musical cue, no voice-overs filled with bad poetry, no exploding supernovas or expanding gases than I ever have from any of Malick’s pieces of photography. And frankly, that’s what Malick is: a photographer. In my opinion, he’s not a filmmaker. Take still shots of any of his movies and hang them in a gallery and you’ve got some art. Piece those shots together and turn them back into one of his films, and you’ve got a seriously intense case of the emperor has no clothes.

  19. Richard,

    It’s terribly bad and lazy form to blame the creator of a work of art for your own simplification of his ideas. Malick does consistently pit forces against each other in his films, as he does here with nature and grace, but they aren’t pure opposites, they aren’t pure in their representation, and there sure as hell aren’t good vs bad. Just because you don’t want to work to see and think through the shades and complexifications in his films doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

  20. Matt Hanson, that’s not what the first line of the Ebert piece reads. I’m not holding it against you, but you might want to consider doing so.

  21. P.T.: It’s also terribly bad and lazy form to write someone you don’t know, and in response to one reply to a blog post, accuse him of being lazy and not willing to work see the “brilliance” of some piece of filmmaking that he simply disagrees with you about.

    I like “working” to see shades and nuances. But only if they’re actually there. I’ve spent more than enough time in my life on Malick’s films. They’re all straw men as far as I’m concerned.

    As much as you may see my opinion as being lazy and “bad,” I see yours as equally lazy and “bad.” You think Malick’s a genius; I think he’s a hack.

    But I didn’t come on to this site and accuse you of being in “terribly lazy and bad form,” simply because where you see brilliance, I see emptiness.

    So I guess we’re both in terribly lazy and bad form.

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