The Tree of Life


Once in a while, you get an artistic film like The Tree of Life that almost drives you out of the cinema half-way through and makes you wonder why you didn’t buy tickets to Friends with Benefits instead. To be completely honest, if I watched this on DVD, I probably would never sit through it.

But to watch it in the cinema was quite an experience. A half hour into the movie, I heard people fidgeting in their seats, turned and saw the man next to me look at his mobile phone, and about forty-five minutes into it, a quiet snore emerged from somewhere, then a soft sigh. As for me, I was desperately trying to figure what was going on.

The Tree of Life is like an art-cum-national-geographic documentary, layered in between a dramatic plot of a family who has lost a child, all the while moving in a slow, non-linear fashion. There is little dialogue and hardly any climax and if you want to know the plot, it is best you refer here.

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There are several voice-overs throughout the film that will fly by you if you don’t pay attention. As you watch merging organisms, erupting volcanoes, orbiting planets unravel their mystery right before your eyes in slow-motion, someone whispers a thought and leaves you thinking if that is meant to coincide with what you’re about to see.

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I am not one of those people who would look at art and then lavish you with technical jargon, history and explain in depth the psyche of the artist when he was doing this painting or that sculpture. Yet I do appreciate art in every form, however little I may understand it.

My first thought after about ten minutes was how someone can shoot a series of random things, put them together and win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But by the end of the film, I realised that I can’t take a straightforward approach with this uncompromising film.

There is nothing random at all what director Terrence Malick did. What may seem random to us, the viewer, is probably driven by a very strong artistic influence and his personal stake in a story like that. Which is to say, if anyone tries to simply imitate what he does, it would be like replicating the physical appearance of something, without actually understanding that it is the inner workings that has contributed to how it eventually looks.

The story does have a cycle. The family deals with the news of a dead child, the mother questions God and why bad things happen to good people, then you get some sort of an answer midway into the film, catch a glimpse into the life of this family over the years, and by the end of the film, you understand that all that arrangement was to allow you to grasp the essence and fundamental concept of the tree of life. I think that quite completes the journey.

For an actor, it would be a rather daunting task, yet the most rewarding, to hold a script that has so few words. I wouldn’t say it’s empowering, because at the end of the day, it is the director’s overall vision and his call on what he would like his actors to project, that would tie in beautifully with his other visuals.

In local television, we are so used to telling stories with words that leaves us with hardly any quiet moments to just not say or do anything. Then I watch a film, that tells a story with cinematically stunning visuals of nature (not sure if they were shot live or digitally re-created) and MTV-like shots of the actors that might not seem to make any sense when put together. Somewhere along the way, I found myself trying to seek reconciliation.

When they aren’t using words, these actors in The Tree of Life have so much emotions and inner dialogue in each of these beautifully composed shots that they are essentially “doing something” even though it seemed like nothing at all. This to me is the highest form of acting, where the idea of “acting” completely eludes the audience.

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This begets the next question: What did the director tell them before each shot?

The way it is shot with the actors seems to come off almost voyeuristic. Especially with the young actors, it almost felt like the camera was trained of them the whole time, allowing them to be uninhibitedly natural. I’m guessing, they might have been told what the emotional requirements of the scene were, or perhaps, told to imagine a time or maybe even told a story, whatever it was, the director must have been very clear what emotions he wanted from them for the scene, and he captured it in the most raw and uncomplicated manner while still maintaining an aesthetic quality to it.

Having said that, The Tree of Life has indeed given me a lot to think about, not just in terms of the underlying themes of life and death but also in understanding myself and my craft.

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16 responses to “The Tree of Life

  1. One word; Abstract.

  2. JOANNE, you have done a very well-written piece that is thought provoking. It is profoundly good. I share the same sentiments about this movie. I have the original DVD since a fortnight ago, but barely half hour into it, I shut it off. It may strut art but it did bore me to no end. Take care, you have done well! KEN from http://www.koolcampus.wordpress.com

  3. Okay, the movie may be artistic because I watched it and found the artists performing well and extremely good camera work, some stunning graphics. The most amazing thing about the movie is, there is zero melodrama. But I did not know how you formed a connection between the boy dying and “why it might have happened for the family to deserve it”. Actually I could see no connection between these two aspects. The elder boy’s child hood is shown throughout the movie, the discomfort he had with his father. how his father is nice to him at times, and is rough at other times. But the penalty of death is given to another son and the elder brother regrets about it all his life. But I could see no connection between anything at the end. And Sean Penn was asking spiritual questions to God about faith, it seems (I read from wiki). I could not hear half of the time what Sean Penn was talking because those conversations were too low in volume and the movie got so draggy and boring that it was a pain sitting through it, except for some stunning visuals and natural acting. It was like interpreting a modern art, someone splashes shit on a white paper and expect you to interpret it by yourself (and the creator will probably be laughing behind our back as we keep giving some deep meaning to crazy lines on a white board). The movie was exactly that way, as far as I am concerned. I care a rat’s ass about the awards a film wins, the challenge is how properly the idea is communicated to an average viewer (artistic or not) without testing his patience,and worse in the end not giving a logical end to it. Probably it was logical, but at least I do not want to read the essence of a movie from wiki or IMDB and then realize the logic. It should be communicated right on the screen in a reasonable manner, if not so naively, because i am paying 10 $ and watching it in a theater.

  4. It may be hard to believe, I went to see that movie twice. It have to be one of the most meaningful movie about Life. The clue of the meaning of the whole movie is the opening statement which goes something like this “We can live our life by Nature or Garce”. The Dinosaur scene – to live by nature, it would have went ahead to kill the wounded dinosaur, but, the Dinosaur chose to live by Grace and spare the live of the wouneded one.

  5. That is a fabulously written review! Very complex and thoughtful. Can’t work out whether I want to go and see it or not!!

    When someone tells me a movie is good I take it at face value but when someone tells me a movie is “no good” I always ask, “Was it a bad movie or did you just not like it?”

    I watched a DVD called “Life on Earth” the other evening with my wife. It is a French movie and is the oddest film I have ever seen (including “Killer clowns From Outer Space”!). My wife was asleep after 10 minutes and I can’t pretend I was gripped but it was literally like wandering around a village looking through windows and listening to people’s lives.

    I don’t think the cast were all actors but that gave the film a lovely, simple feel. There were no explosions, no guns, no serial killer, no FBI man-hunt, no inconceivable romance, no people-being-awful-only-to-turn-out-nice-by-the-end-of-the-film-so-let’s-forgive-them!

    Technically it was dull and even at an 61 mins it would be too long for most people because nothing happened. I loved it…but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone because I don’t think I know anyone who would enjoy it!

  6. Really a great movie.

  7. Half an hour into the movie, I almost walk out. I persevered and stayed till the end hoping for something better. After all, Brad Pitt was in the starring role. Was I rewarded for being patient? No, not an iota! It felt so silly. I should have followed a couple who vanished with 45 minutes left.

    I later read that in the US, some members of the audience had walked out midway. Some had even demanded for refunds! When interviewed for his comments, Sean Penn who also acted in the film commented that he did not know what it was all about. Imagine!

    Movie, what move? The Tree of Life is 100% rubbish.

  8. All the photos of the characters you posted, they conjure up an image of deep introspection that is implicitly self-indulgent.

    However secure you are about your system of beliefs, your mode of thinking, your way of living, or your relationships, you will soon run smack up against its limits.

    The limits of learning: there’s more to know than you can hold in your mind. The limits of all knowing: there are mysteries which are bigger than mere knowledge. And Wisdom tells you when you don’t or can’t know. There is always contradiction in our understanding; we would not always be sure that when we arrive at a fork , we made the right choice.

    The more secure we are, the more the whispers come through: maybe it isn’t so, maybe we staked your life on nothing. Do you know what this phenomenon is called? Life. : D

  9. HI Joanne,

    Have you seen Terrence Malick’s other films like Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven? Days of Heaven just showstopping with stunning lush painterly cinematography by Néstor Almendros. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Days_of_Heaven These films can be borrowed from the Esplanade Library. 🙂

    TM is a very cult director (who makes very few and highly commended films) and pulls his weight above all and sundry. He is one of the greats!!

  10. One of the best movies of all times !!!

  11. Joanne it’s a very simple premise actually….. Terrence Malick is never one for exposition in his films. The entire film from start to finish is Sean Penn’s characters life flashing before his eyes in the moment before his death. The bit at the end with him walking on the beach is his spirit returning to the ocean of souls, from where we all came and will one day return. The other people walking with him are the people who have died at the same time as him… that’s why his mum, dad and brother appear on the beach at the end, they are greeting him in the afterlife. Hope this explanation helps? x

  12. you convinced me not to try it before having the mood to be patient and enjoy those special effects

  13. hi joanne may i please please please know where you got the red and white striped sleeveless shirt + white highwaist jeans you wore on Ladies Nite? thank you so much!!

  14. You should really try the pastures of Hollywood Joanne. You have the presence to succeed over there!

  15. I don’t watch movies but this one really is very good.

  16. This story is timely of things to come to pass. Many films have already been released to let people know of changes to take place…soon!

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