The Tree Of Life


Terrence Malick branches out. Way out.

The Tree Of Life review

Two things before we start on Terrence Malick’s philosophical, spiritual, experimental, transcendent, cosmic odyssey.

One: it’s shorter than Transformers 2. Two: it has dinosaurs in it.

But really, where on earth do we start? Not on Earth. Not at the start. Further back, in the Beginning...

Over four films in as many decades, near-mystical US writer/director Malick has conjured huge arthouseblockbuster tone-poems about seismic periods of human existence like the Great Depression (Days Of Heaven, starring Richard Gere), WW2 (The Thin Red Line, starring everyone in Hollywood) and the discovery of America (The New World, starring Colin Farrell and Christian Bale). The Tree Of Life makes them look like crayon scribbles on the back of a napkin.

A philosophy lecturer turned visionary filmmaker, Malick has finally gone for the big one, unpacking his massive butterfly net and setting out on a quest to capture the existence of God in nature, the meaning of human life and the mysteries of the universe. Whoa.

Land before time

In terms of crazy ambition, there’s nothing else like it. Right from the start, Malick stretches out his arms and attempts to pull together the awesome and the intimate.

But at first, it seems like business at usual: some lovely, drifting shots of a beautiful woman (Jessica Chastain) receiving a telegram telling her that one of her sons has died. She asks, “Why?” Then Malick’s mission begins. He hits the warp button, beaming us into the cosmos and back to the dawn of Creation itself. We just lost cabin pressure...

For the best part of an astonishing hour, we’re immersed in wondrous, mind-blowing images. We see the universe being born. Heavenly Hubble-visions of distant galaxies. Gases, light and matter. Cells splitting. Volcanoes splurging. Jellyfish drifting. Dinosaurs! Asteroids crashing. An embryo’s eye. A child being born.

Created with the help of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull, it might just be the most audacious sequence in cinema since Kubrick’s giant leap from the rise of the apes to the 21st century. And The Tree Of Life never quite touches those giddy heights again.

Malick’s Genesis ends in ’50s Texas, in the town where he grew up, and where strict father Brad Pitt (a fiercely committed turn) and angelic mother Chastain raise their three boys.

This is where Tree lays roots, as Children Of Men cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki films their young son Jack (outstanding newcomer Hunter McCracken) growing in a series of drifting life-fragments – in which very little happens.

Drenched in grandiose classic music, Chastain wanders around looking at trees, while Malick makes her look like an angel (she dances on air at one point) and gives her murmuring lines like, “In what shape did you come to us?” Meanwhile, Pitt scowls imperiously and the kids scamper around.

The Tree Of Life is beautiful. Ridiculously, rapturously beautiful. You could press ‘pause’ at any second and hang the frame on your wall. But you soon get the feeling that Malick could have made the film 30 minutes shorter or 30 hours longer and it would have made no difference.

His goal here is to connect the tensions within this little family (Pitt’s stern Nature vs Chastain’s loving Grace) with the giant forces of the universe. Just in case, Malick tells us exactly this in one of the hushed voiceovers that float over what we’re seeing.

Sean of the dead

We’re regularly teleported to the present day – for the first time in Malick’s career – where grown-up Jack is now Sean Penn, looking angsty, wandering around, not saying much, and looking at rocks.

Even if much of the movie takes place in Jack’s mind, it doesn’t really come together. You’re often left waiting for attentiongrabbing scenes (a toddler staring at a baby, kids tying a frog to a rocket) that don’t arrive often enough, but enthral when they do.

You’ll feel amazed, confused, preached to, ignored, lost, found... and still the camera keeps moving and searching. Then it ends. But not before a finale in which everyone from Jack’s past steps out of time to hug each other on a beach like some sort of Thomson’s holiday advert… albeit the most moving Thomson’s ad you’ll ever see.

But if Malick (and the five editors who worked on 600,000 metres of film for three years) never quite wins his struggle with the film’s impossible ambitions, maybe that’s half the point. Much of The Tree Of Life’s beauty is in its yearning and wonder.

It’s an extraordinary grasping stretch – across space and time – to touch what will always be just out of our reach. It’s a captivating, unmissable experience. And, you know, Transformers 3 is out this month anyway.


To infinity and beyond... Terrence Malick’s spiritual odyssey is baffling, unique and overspilling with wonder. Don’t wait for the DVD.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • MikeyRix

      Jul 5th 2011, 21:19

      Looks pretentious and boring. No thankyou.

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    • BruceShark

      Jul 6th 2011, 1:26

      @MikeyRix well said. Malick is in my book is overrated. Haven't enjoyed any of his recent (with him recent's like ten years) films and the only one of his that is half decent is 'Badlands'.

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    • devilsfoxes

      Jul 6th 2011, 9:10


      haha boring and pretentious they say... gotta get some standards in here im tellin ya! I woulda mentioned that this is a film that speaks in its subtext and juxtaposition of moments. the film is about the power of evolution and the fight against that to preserve ones loved ones from the dangers of the world that evolution is trying to slice away. the conflicts that creates. the way that conflict evolves. fyi my take on the ending. its the reverse of evolution. when we die we return to the ocean. love lets us cling on the the dying crumbs of life as we return. hows that for pretentious :-)

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    • devilsfoxes

      Jul 6th 2011, 9:12


      ment to be 5 stars please change

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    • BruceShark

      Jul 6th 2011, 15:13

      about as pretentious as the film. well done.

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    • garethjnash

      Jul 9th 2011, 23:12


      Awesome. In the true sense of the word.

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    • Siban1982

      Jul 11th 2011, 18:50

      "Malick’s spiritual odyssey is baffling, unique and overspilling with wonder" - So like does it have a plot in that case or are you just "baffled" by the whole thing not really knowing what it's about and why it was made? Just an odd verdict for a 5 star rating. I'll be honest I only read the verdict part but I am a fan of Malick's previous work, apart from A New World which just bored me to death. I'm intrigued but I will be waiting for the DVD me thinks.

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    • glegs

      Jul 14th 2011, 16:27


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    • frantastikid

      Jul 22nd 2011, 19:52


      This has to be the most disappointing 5-star review Total Film has ever written. Sure, the film's beautiful. It's absolutely stunning. But if you want to see awe-inspiring footage of the universe, go watch a documentary about it. If you want to see beautiful footage of Nature, watch David Attenborough do his thing. If, on the other hand, you feel like doing both these things while at the same time boring yourself to death for a couple of hours, 'The Tree of Life' might just be the film for you. Terence Malick obviously has aspirations of profound grandeur behind this film, but unfortunately for him and for the viewer who has to sit through the streams of pseudo-philosophical nothingness that Jessica Chastain spews out in the voice-over, these aspirations barely even scrape their desired heights, instead plummeting into the realms of pretension and bathos. In my opinion, this film's only saving grace, other than the aforementioned pretty pictures of stars, are some of the family scenes that display the tense relationship between Brad Pitt's (who gave a relatively impressive performance) character and his sons. Fans of Sean Penn beware: he has a grand total of about ten lines in the entire film, and is certainly nothing special on the acting front, which demands very little from his character. Anyway, that just about wraps up my first ever film review. I hope you enjoyed it. Francis

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    • luke22

      Jul 28th 2011, 16:48


      The best film of this year and one of the best films of the 21st century so far! Amazing!!!

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    • KJvar

      Oct 8th 2011, 18:55


      I really don't know if the reviewer understood "the film’s impossible ambitions". The Tree of Life is a very special "experience". Malick is playing God and adopting all his spectators: Mephistopheles Grey, my friend, is every theory And green is Life’s golden tree. Student I swear it’s like a dream to me: may I Trouble you, at some further time, To expound your wisdom, so sublime? Mephistopheles As much as I can, I’ll gladly explain. Student I can’t tear myself away, I must just pass you my album, sir, Grant me the favor of your signature! Mephistopheles Very well. (he writes and gives the book back) Student (reading Mephistopheles’ Latin inscription) Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum. (“You shall be like like gods, knowing good and evil”.) (the student makes his bows and retires) Mephistopheles Just follow the old proverb, and my cousin the snake, too: And then your likeness to God will surely frighten you! (Faust, Goethe) Where were you when Malick laid the foundations of the earth, when he made the morning stars sing together and all his fans shouted for joy? Seated on the cinema's chair. You can't see this film with angel eyes. Or the day you understand what was in that telegram Chastain received will be a h*****ne for you. A review about this:

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    • Jareth64

      Jul 3rd 2012, 13:06


      Enjoyable enough but not as radical as is mad

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