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STAR RATINGS EXPLAINED
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POSTER ART
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FILM DETAILS
Certificate
12A
Cast
Brad Pitt
Sean Penn
Jessica Chastain
Hunter McCracken.
Directors
Terrence Malick.
Screenwriters
Terrence Malick.
Running Time
139 mins minutes

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The Tree Of Life
It's a kind of Malick...


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Plot
On the anniversary of his brother's death, troubled architect Jack O'Brien (Penn) ponders his place in the universe, leading inevitably to powerful memories of his turbulent '50s childhood in Waco, Texas - in particular, his formative relationship with his ethereal mother (Chastain) and disciplinarian father (Pitt).


Review
The Tree Of Life
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For his fifth film in 40 years, you wonder whether magisterial slowcoach Terrence Malick took stock of his recent output — such abstruse meditations on war, colonialism, and the ineffable fabric of nature as The Thin Red Line and The New World — and felt it was high time he brought a halt to this worrying slide into crass commercialism. After six years chewing over a bit of Heidegger with his Weetabix, and smothering his intentions in a blanket of secrecy like an impenetrable hybrid of J. J. Abrams and J. D. Salinger, he has summoned forth a dizzyingly impressionistic study of family life that doubles as a vaulting enquiry into the very nature of the universe and the possibility of God. Kubrick’s 2001 comes close, but Malick’s philosophy pines for the salve of love and spirit, and comes light on psychotic super-computers. Even the hardy concept of dialogue falls prey to his exquisitely aloof vision. Against the constant murmurings of nature, we catch only odd lines and whispered voiceovers querulously calling to a hard-of-hearing deity: “Where were you?”

In other words, the kind of highly personal filmmaking where we must first pass though the dawning of time — literally nebulous bodies billowing cloudlike against the black veil of the universe; raw planets spewing gas and lava, primordial pools fecund with boiling matter; sparks of life in the nuclei of swarming cells, dancing proto-fish spinning lightwards, and a wounded plesiosaur on a desolate beach as a meteor strike scours the surface clear for the birth of mankind — before we get to what is commonly referred to as a scene. Cycles of life and death on a cosmic scale contrasted with the intricate dynamics of family.

Actually, instead of beginning at the very beginning, the film kicks off in the mid-1960s with news of the death of R. L. (Laramie Eppler), our protagonist Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) brother, aged only 19. How he died remains elusive, but Malick’s younger brother is reputed to have committed suicide at 19. This shudder of grief will reverberate like a meteor crash through the film, stirring the first of so many questions: what does the loss of a loved one mean against the backdrop of eternity? Much, it transpires.

It is this unshakable heartache, as bitter as the taste of a madeleine is sweet, that casts Sean Penn’s grown-up Jack down a Proustian time tunnel from the metallic canyons of present day Houston, by way of the aforementioned Creation, to the sun-softened enchantment of his childhood. Jack and his two brothers (all three actors wonderfully naturalistic unknowns) are nurtured in an Edenic youth recalled via an organic pulse of ‘memories’: fragments of story, grace notes, wisps of emotion, the odd flicker of Lynchian weirdness. Together an uncanny distillation of how human memory stirs its keeper, awash in Malick’s transcendent imagery: light cascading through leaves, the kiss of a breeze on wild grass, filigree curtains billowing through window frames, dogs running wild.

Theirs is a harmony held in balance by the opposing poles of their parents. A luminous, angelic mother (Jessica Chastain), made holy by the exaltation of Jack’s recollection, bestows a lilting ideology: “The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you follow.” She is exemplified as grace. While the astonishingly mature Brad Pitt as Jack’s terse patriarch — a soul damped down by quashed aspiration, veering between brutal discipline and astringent love — espouses the doctrine of nature: nothing can be achieved without will. Even without the scaffolding of story, this is a sublime evocation of the tides of ecstasy and torment flowing through an American boyhood.

Malick conducts his five editors the way great composers conjure art from thin air, creating an unforgettable symphony of beauty, introspection, and wells of unabashed feeling. And to accompany such cinematic inspiration, not for this director the dreadnought snarls of Nickelback, but extracts of Couperin, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler and Bach, interposed with Alexandre Desplat’s yearning score. The very execution poses its own spiritual enquiry — how can such beauty be created in a meaningless void?

The result is so disarmingly unironic, and therefore open to mockery, it’s easy to see why it was met with a chorus of boos from Cannes’ sincerity-phobic critics. Sure, at times it lifts off too far, becoming too remote and self-involved to fully grasp. And the closing images of Sean Penn blundering across a metaphorical beach in his sodden Armani suggest a potential afterlife as drunkenly off-kilter as that rum-do at the end of Lost. It is equally clear why The Tree Of Life landed the Palme D’or — against the brute attack of modern cinema it feels heaven-sent. A film awestruck by life: why are we here? What are we for? Where did it all go wrong? And where could it yet go right? Malick doesn’t pretend to have actual answers. But then neither, one suspects, does Transformers 3.


Verdict
There is simply nothing like it out there: profound, idiosyncratic, complex, sincere and magical; a confirmation that cinema can aspire to art.


Reviewed by Ian Nathan


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Tree Of Life, The
 

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for The Tree Of Life
Empire Star Rating

RE: Terrible - It's "Depth" is entirely bogus.

I have a question though aimed at everyone. Is one of the two girls seen with O' Brien's mother on the Salt Lake his future wife, ie, the one seen in the film in the contemporary segments? Cause that would most certainly mean that it is not the afterlife.  ... More

Posted by Deviation at 18:18, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Terrible - It's "Depth" is entirely bogus.

ase explain how it is "quite clear" that it wasn't an afterlife? On the contrary I feel it clearly was (or at the very least some kind of metaphysical claim about death and eternity) and many commentators have identified it as such. Sean Penn meets his dead brother there for one thing. But I'd be interested to hear your explanation of what you think is going on when the whole cast meet (including dead characters) at the end? ecause many of the characters featured there weren't simply dead but... More

Posted by Deviation at 18:00, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

L: rawlinson L: fiercehairdo L: rawlinson L: fiercehairdo To dismiss criticism as simply viewers lacking patience is extremely condescending. ust as well you avoided being condescending in your response. a more likely reading of the situation is that you are much more gullibly taken in by empty profundity whispered with a sense of DEEP MEANING over the soundtrack. Taken in by very pretty, but very slick and empty, TV-ad style cinematography. Taken in by ... More

Posted by fiercehairdo at 17:50, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

L: Deviation L: fiercehairdo Personally I found the film's sity naive, simplistic,sentimental and unconvincingldn't mind so much if the means of conveying it's ideas were more interesting that an overlong, slick TV commercial, which is what this feels like. nd how so? I want proper explanations and no silly puns or reductive criticisms. (especially the unconvincing bit since Malick himself is religious) This is a big question that I really don't have time to get into. Su... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by fiercehairdo at 17:46, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

L: fiercehairdo L: rawlinson L: fiercehairdo To dismiss criticism as simply viewers lacking patience is extremely condescending. ust as well you avoided being condescending in your response. a more likely reading of the situation is that you are much more gullibly taken in by empty profundity whispered with a sense of DEEP MEANING over the soundtrack. Taken in by very pretty, but very slick and empty, TV-ad style cinematography. Taken in by a bizarre Christian/p... More

Posted by rawlinson at 17:27, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

L: rawlinson L: fiercehairdo To dismiss criticism as simply viewers lacking patience is extremely condescending. ust as well you avoided being condescending in your response. a more likely reading of the situation is that you are much more gullibly taken in by empty profundity whispered with a sense of DEEP MEANING over the soundtrack. Taken in by very pretty, but very slick and empty, TV-ad style cinematography. Taken in by a bizarre Christian/pantheistic religiosity th... More

Posted by fiercehairdo at 17:25, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Terrible - It's "Depth" is entirely bogus.

L: Deviation rally taking us to some kind of heavenly afterlife where we all meet up with dead loved ones... My jaw hit the floor with the dumb simplicity of it all. Over two hours to get to this!!? t wasn't an afterlife and they weren't dead, this is quite clear. wish the many film critics in thrall to his myth would wake up and face the fact that, yes, Malick is an interesting director but also very flawed and, too often, deadly dull. hy should they, actually why should I? O... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by fiercehairdo at 17:24, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

I watched this last night and I'm still summing up my thoughts about it. I enjoyed it, that much I know. What I don't know is why. ... More

Posted by Harry Tuttle at 15:59, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

I think Brad Pitt is really sexy. That is my review. ... More

Posted by jiraffejustin at 15:48, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

L: fiercehairdo To dismiss criticism as simply viewers lacking patience is extremely condescending. ust as well you avoided being condescending in your response. a more likely reading of the situation is that you are much more gullibly taken in by empty profundity whispered with a sense of DEEP MEANING over the soundtrack. Taken in by very pretty, but very slick and empty, TV-ad style cinematography. Taken in by a bizarre Christian/pantheistic religiosity that has all the dept... More

Posted by rawlinson at 15:32, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Terrible - It's "Depth" is entirely bogus.

rally taking us to some kind of heavenly afterlife where we all meet up with dead loved ones... My jaw hit the floor with the dumb simplicity of it all. Over two hours to get to this!!? t wasn't an afterlife and they weren't dead, this is quite clear. wish the many film critics in thrall to his myth would wake up and face the fact that, yes, Malick is an interesting director but also very flawed and, too often, deadly dull. hy should they, actually why should I? OH YEAH WAIT WAIT BECUA... More

Posted by Deviation at 15:29, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

L: fiercehairdo Personally I found the film's sity naive, simplistic,sentimental and unconvincingldn't mind so much if the means of conveying it's ideas were more interesting that an overlong, slick TV commercial, which is what this feels like. nd how so? I want proper explanations and no silly puns or reductive criticisms. (especially the unconvincing bit since Malick himself is religious) ... More

Posted by Deviation at 15:26, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Tree of Life Review

L: the film man Terrence Malick's singularly deliberate style may prove unrewarding for some, but for patient viewers like myself, Tree of Life is an emotional as well as visual treat, an unforgettable experience. hat an utterly patronising comment! In other words you're saying: "patient (inferior) viewers may not get it but for patient (superior) viewers like myself, who have the necessary insight to understand great art, we get itISH!!!!!!!! To dismiss criticism as simply view... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by fiercehairdo at 12:39, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


Terrible - It's "Depth" is entirely bogus.

I really disliked this film. It wears it's claims to 'Depth and 'Meaning' on it's sleeve yet it's profundity is entirely bogus. Aesthetically styled like a posh TV commercial even it's claim's to beauty are not justified - I found it visually repetitive and quite empty; very pretty but very boring. The endless footage of floaty, steady-cam shots of kids playing in sunlit, treelined streets really start to wear thin.The best section - the Origin of the Universe bit - is interesting, but one kept ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by fiercehairdo at 12:24, 08 January 2012 | Report This Post


Deep and meaningful!

Tree of Life is probably Malicks deepest film yet, but not his best ( Thin Red Line is probably my firm favourite ), it is also a very well made and beautifully crafted film with some amazing film making on display. It does require a lot of patience and is very slow moving so you do have to be in the mood. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by dannyfletch at 21:53, 07 January 2012 | Report This Post


The Tree of Life Review

Terrence Malick's singularly deliberate style may prove unrewarding for some, but for patient viewers like myself, Tree of Life is an emotional as well as visual treat, an unforgettable experience. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by the film man at 21:32, 02 January 2012 | Report This Post


RE: the way of nature or the way of grace

Film of the year for me along with I Saw The Devil and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by garvielloken at 14:01, 13 December 2011 | Report This Post


RE: the way of nature or the way of grace

Anyone vaguely familiar with Malick's recent output can't have been too surprised by what's on offer here. I'd rather it was shorter, but enjoyed it enough as a sensual experience. I think he needs to drop the voiceovers in future.  ... More

Posted by hatebox at 11:41, 13 December 2011 | Report This Post


RE: the way of nature or the way of grace

Having just watched this I don't think I have much more to add to the argument that hasn't already been said... I loved it and will have to watch it again to fully appreciate the intricaciesof it. I can see how some people would think it was a waste of time and I wouldn't feel better than them or insist that they just don't get it. But to me this was a beautiful, artistic, and emotive film which left me unsure of what it all meant, but sure that I had witnessed something beautiful.   ... More

Posted by narmour at 11:17, 13 December 2011 | Report This Post


the way of nature or the way of grace

whether the film is about you choosing which faith you rely in such as that God made the earth or Science made the earth in terms of cinema and direction this is ART in cinema... ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Dirk Diggler 619 at 20:46, 19 November 2011 | Report This Post


RE: The tree of perfection

  In the mid 1960s, Mrs O'Brien recalls a lesson taught to her that people must choose to either follow the path of grace or the path of nature.   She receives a telegram informing her of her son's death at age 19, and the family, which also consists of her husband and their two other sons Jack and Steve, is thrown into turmoil.  In the present day, Jack O'Brien is adrift in his modern life as an architect. When he sees a tree being planted in front of ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Dr Lenera at 21:58, 14 November 2011 | Report This Post


The tree of perfection

unbelievable. not for everyone but perfect to me ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by introducing111 at 17:10, 13 November 2011 | Report This Post


RE: Divine

L: UTB No religion? Did we see the same film? hile religion literally features in the film I presume the OP meant in terms of the overall meaning of the movie. It's a film in which the protagonist needs to eschew and deny religion in order to be happy, and who only finds peace when he focuses on the family instead of the bible. It's like the opposite to Job; fuck faith, love your family. ... More

Posted by adambatman82 at 11:22, 02 November 2011 | Report This Post


RE: Divine

No religion? Did we see the same film? ... More

Posted by UTB at 08:02, 02 November 2011 | Report This Post


Divine

The reviews of 'Tree' are very mixed and even on Empire's forum it certainly keeps everybody guessing about it's themes. Well, let me start by saying I really witnessed a miracle when I saw it: I didn't know such an achievement could ever be possible: For me it was totally detached form cinema or literature..it was simply art, carefully balancing on the edge of becoming 'artsy fartsy', without ever crossing that line. This movie is as much a work of art as the most beautiful modernist painting.... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Saxsymbol at 16:15, 16 September 2011 | Report This Post


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