December 1st, 2011 / 12:08 pm

Why Audiences Can’t Sit For or Stand The Tree of Life

What is most surprising about the premiere of The Tree of Life and its subsequent box-office failure due to a powerfully negative word of mouth is that if any film was the right film for the right moment (that moment being our living in a time of spiritual, economic, and environmental disasters), it is this wonder of images. The film presents the world as harmonious and cracked (humans are those fractured, nature is another story), yet spatial—intimate in childhood, while thunderingly antiseptic in the present day matrix of skyscrapers and homes equipped with plasma screens. As consumer culture tightens its grip on our souls, here is a piece of craftsmanship so sure of its place apart from imitation art (also known as Oscar bait—Dances with Wolves, et al.), that it happily eschews many drab protocols and the rub-a-dub sentimental stew of traditionally arching storylines and instead, gives us images that aren’t simple, that have to be read, that have to be reflected upon and interpreted, that ask us to share in their beauty rather than be repelled and manipulated by a gratuitous splatter of plot points and snappy, smarmy dialogue where one asshole rips another to bring the audience into the product’s fold, as so many of these products are the brainchild of some starstruck, cash-hoarding producer, or a Hollywood star struck by scandal, needing money to quell attorneys and so gleefully takes a gun or three and blows holes in the bad guys for a few hours more.

Thankfully The Tree of Life is nothing like this. Terrence Malick, its writer and director, is a man who has studied the history of art and ideas, as well as translating Heidegger. His films are full feasts as one sees in Kurosawa, Bergman, and Tarkovsky’s films, demonstrated by their intelligence and allusive sense. This particular Malick film contains the high art not only of architecture and music, but some of the most beautiful places in the world (Death Valley, the canyonlands of Utah, and the gardens of a small town in Italy, not to mention unidentified oceans and waterfalls), and the most beautiful things, including trees, sunflowers, and the faces of human beings. His creation throbs with energy—a family grows, destructs, and hangs on—but it has no patience with establishing character or “setting the table” for the audience—the table is already set; Malick’s invitation has taken the pain of gifting his guests.

What is the crux of Malick’s film? Everyone knows life is unfair, but does everyone know life is unfair and beautiful, often at the same time? Malick examines human behavior—how we are made, how we are raised—and dramatizes the loss of the natural world from our lives. The Tree of Life shows how hate grows in the heart, but Malick leaves out much of the clichéd reasons why men have the their anger (she doesn’t love me, she loves him, they gave him my job) and intelligently has the frustrated father develop his own complicated persona—a factory man, but a failed man, a man able to love music and gardening, yet short-sighted enough to continually squelch his wife and sons. Though Malick does use many tricks (or standard expressionistic camera play), such as jumps cuts, fades to black, craning shots, steadicam (who doesn’t these days?), close-up upon close-up, upside down shots, the fisheye lens, they are part of a visual style defining the film—not the mixing and matching of so-called MTV-style where fast edits and kamikaze camera work are the norm, giving the impression that much is going on, when often all the banging of drums signifies little because form and content are so divorced from one another. The visual style of The Tree of Life more emphatically fits the content of the film more than the majority of films ever made. The ways the camera moves, the images the camera captures, and the way these images are edited are much more the film than the actors, the story, the dialogue or voiceover, even more than the impressive array of classical music. The Tree of Life is the camera, it was made by a motion picture camera and the results are images. Perhaps audiences can’t compute Malick’s visual catalogue because it is prodigious, with many indexes, but in seeing the film twice I did feel the film fulfilling itself each time. There was no other conceivable alternative way the film could be made—each frame held and withheld exactly what it needed to be a piece of great art. If anything, one could argue that sometimes Malick goes too fast, as he cuts out of many incredibly beautiful shots within a few seconds of their appearance (as he did to great effect in Days of Heaven), most explicitly this one:

One can see it is a moving shot across the ground of a seeming salt flat, and lasts roughly four seconds of moving up to the mother. Yet the quick cut is on cue—too much more and Malick might be too enamored and some in the audience too disaffected by the look-at-me-ness.

All the bellyaching about the creation sequence mystifies, as the creation sequence itself does, gladly. How many times has a filmmaker dared to show the creation of the universe? While Kubrick focused on the apes, Malick shows the science of the universe and the earth coming into being, the fire firing, the steam steaming, and the mountains rising, with a bevy of creatures portrayed, from jellyfish to dinosaurs. His exemplary use of visual effects is not meant to titillate but to inspire awe about the plant we live on and how it demarcated itself as a celestial body of some intelligence. Of course, no one can complain that they don’t know what is going on in the sequence, it is that what is going on is too naked to take, too intimately presented with no chance to look away. This is another and certainly the key reason why Malick’s film hasn’t reached an audience. It is too intimate, too joyful—and specifically spiritually joyful. In our sedentary, device-aholic age of ego, exemplified by the Facebook fou-fou of gloat—our joy is often too tied to other’s envy. We are mostly a nation of stand-up comics in our anal insistences or quaggy celebrations—where one must trump the other to get more space, where every second thing is “awesome” but with little or no explication of its awesomeness, so as to continue on to the next most awesome thing on the assembly line. The dirty secret of The Tree of Life is it’s about the joy of being alive, the sensorial pleasure of it—lapping water or swimming in it, experiencing touch and art, accepting others, loving people unconditionally, which the boys approach in the final minutes of the story from the 1950’s. In our digital pleasure domes life is more fleeting than a shadow of a shadow and when life ceases to be physical, we must seriously ask if we cease to be human.

What I’ve seen least commented on in reviews of the film is the fact that the oldest brother is having his own mid-life crisis in the present day sections as he summons memories of his parents receiving the news of his brother dying some thirty-forty years before and then delves back into the 1950’s, into the story of his family. It has been debated whether God’s mind is a presence in the film, but clearly this is the eldest son’s journey out of the mire, as he reunites with his parents and brothers (and his younger self) at the end, in Death Valley and on the beach. This isn’t extremely intricate in terms of plot (the framing story has little story, only sensation of the past), but it is something to consider, as often encapsulations of what is actually occurring in the film have been superseded by the calling out of its longueurs and digressions (especially the creation sequence), for which I call on the supremely talented novelist Stanley Elkin to answer those dissenters as he did similar snickerers during his life when he said, “Less is less and more is more.” The Tree of Life is much much more and at least the critical establishment has seen fit to enshrine it with multiple, lengthy reviews and mentions in the New York Times and New Yorker, as well as a large article in The New York Review of Books.

The Tree of Life is the most important American film in years, but seemingly very few realize it. Malick demonstrates a way films can go, combining the mood and pallor of Cezanne and Rothko, with the grandeur of Brahms and Mahler, the ideas of Heraclitus and Plato, and the poetics of Dickinson and Yeats. But as I speak the moment passes and more gory, ill-assuming celluloid is spun and processed (or digital doled out, in kind), and more script doctors spin quarter-baked plots that will feed our spirits just as well as quarter pounders with cheese. To paraphrase the immortal Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent frosted films.” Support those who strive, support Malick, buy the DVD’s of Abbas Kiarostami rather than Christopher Nolan. Embrace the painterly images as they are, rather than knee-jerking a “boring” so as to join the chorus of chic but chi-chi boo birds. Depth awaits. And depth is awesome.


Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver QuarterlyQuarterly West, Mississippi Review, Rain Taxi, Brooklyn Rail, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and others. There’s Something Wrong with Sven, a book of short fiction has been published by Blaze Vox Books.


Tags: ,


  1. Anon.

      I love boring movies, and I hated this movie.

  2. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      never have i seen a film depict what it felt like to be a young boy better than the tree of life. that was enough to convince me. but i am a malick fan. and not simply because harmony korine told me to be. as a story teller, malick lets you attempt to decide. i like that. and he’s never a slouch when it comes to the image.
      as far as a north american audience is concerned, i can only wonder what it would be to bring back tarkovsky’s the sacrifice. the tree of life was one explosive sex scene after another explosive death scene compared to the sacrifice.
      maybe the film was a bit sentimental. maybe it’s time to stop being afraid of that emotion. i watched looking for richard this morning, and barbara everett said, “irony is only hypocrisy with style.” i liked that. sometimes i enjoy my art in style, absent the irony. the irony absent in the tree of life didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. because sometimes that happens.  
      i want to watch the tree of life again. thanks.

  3. alanrossi

      i enjoyed this and agree with much of it.  in the fourth paragraph, you’ll want to change “plant” to “planet.” 

      i’m often unsure how to read Malick’s position on nature (the natural world); in fact, i think there’s often two natures going on in Malick’s films (the same can be said, i think, of the way nature is portrayed in The Thin Red Line).  at first, i was inclinded to think that one nature is the natural world and the other is man’s nature, but this is quite right.  however, i think there is a kind of duality which is non-dual that Malick is exploring.  as the mother says early in the film, and this only an approximation: “there are two paths through life; the way of nature and the way of grace: you have to choose which path you’ll take.”  now, this may simply be her “view” of things, but i think Malick gives her more authority than this – she is kind of free, tied to the natural world yet above it, transcending it, yet completely a part of it (she’s associated with the tree, right?).  likewise, in The Thin Red Line, nature is often beautiful and spiritual, etc, but it’s also at war with itself.  and if you think about the creation of the universe sequence (which is obviously big ol’ grand nature), then you have to address the fact that it’s completely violent (probably the coolest dinosaur scene i’ve ever watched, just want to add).  in any case, what the film feels like to me is a kind of double-binary set up between two different yet commingled natures which are possibly/probably embodied by the father and mother.  the father is essentially representative of the violent, fighting “side” of nature, which is essential to the universe, but also ignorant, “lower,” or at least capable of what we might term stupidities, etc; while the mother is representative of the transcendent “side” of nature, grace, though i kind of hate the word grace, maybe compassion or more pointedly, awareness, which is equally necessary (at times i feel, though this is completely personal, a kind of basic awareness in his films of samsara/moksha or even better nama/rupa, though moreso in the thin red line – but Malick’s so pointedly “western” i hesistate to use these terms).  in any case, and so, and therefore: I don’t think the film dramatizes the loss of the natural world so much as it dramatizes one particular aspect of the natural world as capable of becoming dominant, and that is because it is the dominant, violent, excessively male side of the existence – yet, as the film seems to demonstrate, this side will always be balanced by the other. 

      maybe that made some kind of sense.  all of which is meant to say: i also love the film.

  4. alanrossi

      i meant “isn’t quite right” in the beginning of that second paragraph.

  5. Patrick

      Thanks for this Greg. THE TREE OF LIFE was one of the more powerful experiences I’ve had at the theatre in some time, and I’m still sorting out exactly how to read it. Your thoughts are helpful in that regard- most of what I’ve read or heard about the film hasn’t been as engaging. 

      There’s talk about a general trend away from irony towards sincerity in contemporary art and literature, and while I’m dubious as to how productive those discussions are, I couldn’t help but be struck by the sincerity of Malick’s effort. I can’t think of any other contemporary film which is as sincere AND wildly (the cynic in me wants to say impossibly) ambitious as TTOL. 

      “Mumblecore” films and a lot of Kelly Reichardt’s work is, I’d argue, sincere- but they’re generally concerned with the sincerity of small things, tiny moments, specific individuals, contemporary time. 

      The ambition of TTOL, probably best symbolized by the creation sequence, wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t so sincere. And I don’t think we have a good way, in contemporary film criticism, to discuss projects with this blend of sincere ambition. To some degree TTOL needs us (viewers) to drop our own cynicism in order to have any chance at being successful. 

      We need to believe it’s possible AND worthwhile for a film to try to answer The Big Questions for that film to have any chance at answering them. And that’s difficult in the current culture. We haven’t been asked to do that in the theater for a long time. 

      Thanks again. 


  6. Anonymous

      Visually, The Tree of Life was astounding. A feast for the eyes. But I wish I could have watched most of it on mute — or with an entirely instrumental accompaniment.

      Could always see if it syncs up with Dark Side of the Moon.

  7. la

      the whole theater got up & left.  i wanted to at least 47 times but i made myself stay.  afterwards, while walking home, i said man i so should’ve gotten up round min 15 with everyone else.  i can’t handle heavy rhetoricals.  i can’t handle the image of a volcano erupting symbolizing the mother’s broken heart, death, etc.  

  8. Craig Davis

      Malick’s house of cards collapsed so completely for me in The New World that Tree of Life came as a kind of welcome affirmation that I did not, in fact, misjudge my total reappraisal of his work, but rather, simply do not like his schtick anymore.

      I laughed so hard during the “reunited on the beach of eternity” scene that I had to leave the theatre to avoid embarassing my wife. Did it get — could it have gotten — any worse from there?
      These last 2 films have made me scared to watch Days of Heaven ever again for fear I will hate it and butcher one of the last sacred cows of my “art is important” phase. 

  9. JW

      Greg, this is the essay on The Tree of Life I have been waiting for.  The people who get up and leave in the middle of a film like this are only able to handle linear narratives, and are too lazy to use their brains and hearts to delve into what the film presents to the viewer.  It’s part of the dumbing down of American that audiences can’t appreciate it, and it’s very sad.  Thanks very much for this.

  10. alanrossi

      man, see, this idea that the end of the film is “reunited on the beach of eternity” is way too easy to me and doesn’t give Malick nearly enough credit.  the film is dealing with a consciousness, which happens to be the boy’s, later the man’s.  in that sequence on the beach we’re inside the grown boy’s (Penn’s character’s) consciousness: beginning with the family part of the movie, the film is essentially dealing with the boy’s/man’s internal struggle to reconcile two forces inside himself, which his youth shaped, and in that last sequence he is doing it: to me, it was consciousness awakening to seeing clearly the choice it believed it had to make was actually no choice at all. 

  11. Don

      I loved Tree of Life.  It’s my favorite movie of the year and one of the very few movies worth seeing in the theater more than once.

  12. Don

      Two more thoughts:

      1) The creation sequences, set to Mahler and Mozart’s Requiem, are so gorgeous.  Fucked up beautiful.

      2) The film is deeply religious and takes on the question of theodicy in a way that other religious films are afraid to do.

      Thanks for the great article.  I hope it inspires a few people to watch the film!

  13. Don

      I agree with you about the depiction of being a young boy.  It was the most compelling take on masculinity I’ve ever seen in a film.




  15. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski
  16. Don

      ZZZZZIPPP, you are the best thing on this site.



  18. mimi




  20. Greg Gerke

      Thanks Craig. I think you are right about The Sacrifice vs. Tree. Malick in most ways is very digestible. Perhaps Hollywood producers realize this and let him do want he wants to do.

  21. Greg Gerke

      Thanks Alan for this response. Your reading makes complete sense to me. I tempted to start to have a discussion about our origins. I guess that’s the grandeur of the film.

  22. Greg Gerke

      Thanks for your thoughtful response Richard. Sincerity, yes. Ozu and Kiarostami would be good people to bring up as displaying sincerity and an almost Buddha sensibility. Old Joy was so powerful for me.

  23. Greg Gerke

      I just saw Badlands for the first time a week ago. I don’t really see that Malick has changed that much. Stylistically, his last four films are very kindred. Maybe so many other “reunited at the end” films ruin our appreciation. But to me, to have so many wildly different responses by people to a film, is a mark of some powerful film. Kubrick’s were savaged by many critics.

  24. Greg Gerke

      Thanks much JW.

  25. Greg Gerke

      Thanks Don!

  26. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      oh, man. old joy was flawless. i use that film like a trusted hallucinogen: coming back to it every so often – when i need some perspective/grounding/a jolt. love it. 

      and a side note.
      just this morning, my cats, unearthed from behind a bookshelf, my ticket stub from the tree of life. the stub’s been behind there probably since the summer.
      cats are good for that kind of fun. 

  27. Anonymous

  28. Anonymous

  29. Anonymous

  30. Vince

      I enjoy European movies–I loved “Aurevoir Les Enfants” for example for it’s brilliant understatement–but I am not a fan of “The Tree of Life.” Hiding behind “he lets you decide what the images mean” is another way of saying either 1. he had nothing to say or 2. he didn’t know how to say it. I loved Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” which often has nothing going on but images–but in the end they amount to something. I never got that feeling from Malick’s film. And, as many have pointed out, the ending scene was just awful.

      It should also be pointed out that we don’t have to choose between Hollywood schmaltz and three-hour films whose visuals are sometimes stunning (even if they look like they’re lifted out of Jurassic Park or a Nat’l Geog. documentary) but don’t in the end connect up very well. There’s a wide spectrum out there offering far more than two alternatives.

      And Sean Penn …? What a waste of a brilliant actor. Did he have a single  line? If he did, I can’t recall it. The film left me mostly befuddled, and it’s probably because Malick tried to force nature to be something it isn’t: a produce of God’s grace.

  31. Queencolleen0413

      I watched the movie and kept waiting for the plot to kick in, but it never really did. 

  32. Anonymous

      In Jack’s
      prayer:  “Where do you live?  Help me
      not to tell lies.  Are you watching me?  I want to know what you are.  I want to
      see what you see.”Someone very astute pointed out Jack’s prayer as the key to the movie.  I don’t think it’s a movie that is advocating the existence of God.  Is this the God’s eye view of the universe?  Besides the cosmic and primordial elements that establishes eons and vastness of the universe, it was also about the inner universe.   I couldn’t have found a more brilliant movie that expresses the deepest qualities of being human with minimal dialogue.  Perhaps the end was a little stylistic, but it stated something very important;  What was taken is now something given freely.  The universe is ever changing and tragedy and death is a part of our existence.  In order to accept what is, we must give away what is most precious to us-our preconceptions, our desires, our ideals, our hubris, our vanity and our ownership of others that we say is love.  “Grace doesn’t try to please itself.  It accepts all things.”   By accepting all things, then and only then are we capable of compassion.  This a movie that cannot be understood with the mind and must be explored with the heart.  

  33. A D Jameson

      Yeah, I agree. I love other Malick films, but Tree is just so mediocre.

  34. A D Jameson

      Why is the film so cliche-riddled, then?

      I know life is cliched, but depictions of life shouldn’t be.

  35. A D Jameson

      Greg, I think you’re saying more than you realize.

      That’s one of my main problems with Tree. It’s a multiplex Malick movie. Malick stripped of everything that made him Malick!

      It is, at heart, a very, very simple movie.

  36. A D Jameson

      I’ve revisited Days since seeing Tree, and it’s definitely slipped in my opinion. Which I’m very sorry to say; I used to utterly adore it.

      But the trajectory is clear, I’m afraid.

  37. A D Jameson

      Also, if the movie’s so great, then why is the writing in it so bad?

  38. Steven Mcmorrow


           You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.  Yes, it is a very simple movie.  It has a simple direction.  It aims to project emotion.  You say the film is “mediocre” and ” the writing is bad”
      The writing is simple and conveys real life dialogue in emotional situations.  If you were looking for lots of well written dialogue after watching Malick’s other films there is something wrong with you and you will be disappointed.  He seems to aim at capturing emotions on film rather than having dialogue explain it.  This has been Malick’s direction since he started.  Go watch The New World and let me know how much dialogue there is in it.  Acting is about what is not being said which is why so many actors want to work with Malick and his directing and writing is a reason why so many filmmakers draw from him.  GO watch the interview with Fincher and Nolan talk about  Tree of Life.  It’s quite interesting.

  39. Anonymous

      multiplex movie? you mean that this is malick’s attempt to appease the largest demographic or lowest common denominator or whatever the fuck–you mean, this is his attempt at a summer block buster? i live in utah and this movie played on only one screen in the entire goddamned state. this might be my favorite movie because the specific imagery and simple sparse dialogue seem to all deal with ideas i’ve been obsessed with my entire life, but this is not a normal movie nor is it something i could sincerely recommend to most of the people i know. judging from everything i’ve read on the internet about The Tree of Life, my experience of the movie seems to be–but of course it can’t be–singular: for example the m90 galaxy, a very small section of a panoramic hubble image of the eta carinae nebula (but a reversed mirror image of it, and it appears twice), the horsehead nebula, the helix nebula, the scientifically inaccurate, suddenly empathetic troodon (we have known for at least seven years that it was covered in feathers), the ten-kilometer wide asteroid as it forms the chicxulub impact crater at the tip of the yucatan peninsula (and this is the only scientifically accurate scene of celestial impact in cinema), and the great salt lake salt flats, the short sandstone formations of goblin valley in southern utah, the death of the universe near the end of the film (the movie does not show the creation twice) –i know all of these things because these are ideas i’ve been thinking about my entire damn life. this seems like a movie that seemingly could appeal only to me. this is damn near the most un-multiplex and perhaps the most scientifically literate movie i have ever seen. setting aside all of the religious idealogy and imagery (which i had no problem doing), this movie attempts to ask the big questions about meaning in a meaningless universe as they could have only been asked right now in our species’ history. of course, it is up to us as individuals to apply meaning to whatever information we can suss out from our culture’s constantly refined and redefined aesthetic ideals and scientific theories and apply them to our own subjective experiences that we hope, mostly in vain i think, to make a model of the universe that makes sense to us. and yes, this movie does ask us to not think–in a way it is almost propaganda for seeing and thinking about the universe in such a specific way that asks the fundamental questions in a new, but logically arrives at, way. i totally lost track of trying to speak clearly, but who gives a shit–that’s life, huh?