Two critics debate Terrence Malick's family-and-everything-else epic.

By Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich
May 27, 2021 at 05:24 PM EDT
The Tree of Life
Credit: Merie Wallace/Searchlight Pictures

Director Terrence Malick only released four films in as many decades before The Tree of Life hit theaters on May 27, 2011So the movie was already a major event on the arthouse calendar. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn were the big names on the cast, alongside suddenly-everywhere newcomer Jessica Chastain and a young cast led by newcomers Hunter McCracken and Tye Sheridan. Also, the Big Bang. Our critics Darren Franich and Leah Greenblatt take a long memory walk across a spirit beach to discuss the cosmic family drama.

DARREN: We are here in the year 2021. But time and space are dissolving, with a little help from the Entertainment Weekly archive: We are at Cannes in 2011, where The Tree of Life gets booed at its world premiere. We are at a newsstand a few weeks later, reading our brilliant former critic Lisa Schwarzbaum as she praises the movie as "luminously precise" while noting trepidatiously that it is "maddeningly without form and void."

A few months later, the home release offers our equally brilliant former critic Chris Nashawaty the chance to counterargue how Tree of Life is "a maddening step backward" for Terrence Malick. (The commenters are so angry that Chris writes a very funny follow-up post.) The film earns $61.6 million globally — not a big hit, but a decent sum of cash for a film about Sean Penn feeling sad and thinking about the universe. It also garners three Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture. Something called The Artist wins; was that a movie?

What I'm getting at, Leah, is that Tree of Life was a major topic of conversation. Some people saw the film as Malick's magnum opus, the dreamy naturalist carrying the explorations of his earlier work to a personal-biblical apotheosis. Other people wondered, with some justification, what the hell was happening. Consider me a complete Tree of Life apostle — like, I am the person who left the theater in total gobsmacked awe and walked all the way from Sunshine Cinema (RIP!) in the Lower East Side to Brooklyn. (Did I walk across a bridge, or float across the East River?)

I enjoy seeing three brothers grow up in ethereal midcentury Texas. As their mother, Jessica Chastain gives one of the most amazing screen performances I've ever seen, balancing so many layers of parental concern with a primal evocation of maternal adoration. Brad Pitt and Penn are two distinct shades of masculine sad, palpably struggling against themselves. I love the dinosaurs. I love them, Leah!

Where did you stand on the movie when it came out? Has your opinion shifted in the intervening years?

LEAH: Well fortunately for the purposes of today's debate, I did not float across the East River; you and I fall on different sides of this thin red line. (Thin Brad line? Sorry, I'll see myself out.) While I too swooned at certain moments — tell me more, dinosaur! — and am still entirely ravished by the cinematography, I find way too much of Tree to be frustratingly obtuse and pleased with itself. One moment it's about the cosmos, the next it's a Calvin Klein ad; sometimes it's just a very special episode of Planet Earth without Sir David Attenborough to guide us.

I admit I was also intrigued by the premise, such as it is. (Is Brad a bad dad? Why is Sean sad? Wait, what were those patents for?) And on the face of it I truly do admire anyone who attempts to reimagine the domestic drama as something so strange and beautiful and holy, even if that means zooming through old-growth redwoods and cloud nebulae while Jessica Chastain whisper-talks about "the way of grace."

The Tree of Life
Credit: Everett Collection

Speaking of Chastain, let me dig into another extremely personal peeve. I agree with you that she is phenomenal in this — in fact without her I'm not sure that the film would have worked at all; she's the heart and human tether to a story that otherwise threatens to float away into the stratosphere like one of those Mylar space balloons. But I'm still vaguely creeped out by the way the camera seems to fetishize her as a sort of divine Mother-Goddess.

Is Malick just giving us the male gaze, specifically the kind of sentimental filter that countless grown men undoubtedly (and understandably) see their moms through when they look back through the mists of time? Maybe, but that treatment rarely allows her the fuller kind of personhood that other characters are given; she's too busy being dappled by the sun, twirling on eternal lawns in her bare feet and cotton house dresses. Even her grief seems to be treated as a sort of aesthetic object: Look how pretty, those crystalline tears! Darren, am I being insane?

DARREN: You are as far from insane as any of us are from learning Mother's first name! My only response to your accurate fetishization argument is that everyone is an intangible god-vibe. Pitt is stern and remote and Industry. Penn is A Man Cut Off From The Natural World. Chastain is Gaia-Eve who has an oh-so-titular Tree. But they're also given very specific flashes of personality, which pulls them out of perfume-ad territory. Mother's playfulness with her children contrasts with barely-spoken marital tensions. Pitt's postwar toughness is a recognizable Eisenhower pose devoid of the usual confident swagger. Penn is… well, a Man Cut Off From The Natural World. But I enjoy his Penn-sive meandering way more than the overwork that usually gets him Oscar nominations. 

That cloud-nebulae instinct you're describing would get a major workout in Malick's next few movies. To the WonderKnight of Cups, and Song to Song: Call them the Twirlogy. They overdosed on everything that Tree of Life refined, from the swooping Emmanuel Lubezki cinematography to the squadron-long lineup of credited editors hacking familiar actors into cameos. (Since I'm posting my favorite old EW Malick reviews, I simply must link to the great Joe McGovern's blistering treatise on Song to Song. Also, Song to Song is okay and Knight of Cups is a masterpiece, bye!)

I think what sets Tree of Life apart is the specificity of the setting (drawn from Malick's own memory) and the children. Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan give unforced performances that are soul-raw even when the events turn elliptical. That vital humanity goes missing sometimes Malick works with polished stars. McCracken especially has a razor stare that grounds the dreamy style. You become aware that you're seeing the '50s world through his suspicious, confused eyes. 

Malick's themes are not hard to grasp: Parents, Brotherhood, Earth, Memory. I guess you could really drill down into the social undercurrents of the Texas era, or mystery-theorize about Why The Chair Moves On its Own. But part of what I love about the director is his helpless look-at-at-that-bird nature love. The Tree of Life is a movie about a guy who works in a modern office, spending his day on a computer or on a phone, in a glistening glass-surface office building that looks exactly like his empty cubic home. Inside that man's head is the memory of another world: A lawn, a river, long parentless afternoons, colors, unmediated life. This contrast may seem obvious or nostalgic, but I don't think I've ever seen another movie dramatize it so vividly.

The Tree of Life
Credit: Merie Wallace/Searchlight Pictures

I'm curious, Leah. Are there parts of the movie that work for you — or, conversely, specific set pieces that summarize the pleased-with-itself feeling you dislike? And can we at least agree this was the best Best Picture nominee of 2011? No disrespect to Martin Scorsese's fancy Paris train. All disrespect to Aaron Sorkin talking baseball to death.

LEAH: Dammit, Darren! You're making me feel like a Malick crank. I would be lying if I said I wasn't transported more than once — though it's funny you mention the note-perfect casting of the kids (who I immediately googled after rewatching; it looks like only Sheridan went on to a grown acting career?). Because beyond the movie's extraordinary this-is-your-brain-on-Terrence imagery, that's what resonated with me most: that idea of portraying childhood on screen in this visceral, almost primal way that transcends language or even, you know, proper names and things.

And Tree does a gorgeous job of that I'll admit, but for some reason my mind kept wandering to Richard Linklater's Boyhood: another wild auteur experiment, you could say, but also a far more conventional kind of narrative. And though of course this isn't a zero-sum game — there are dozens of films that capture what it is to be small and inconsequential in the world, beautifully — Linklater's frequency just resonates with me in a much richer and more human way. You can have your shock-and-awe cinematic tricks, and a sensical plot too!

But don't listen to me; ask the Cut-Off Man himself, Mr. Penn — who straight-up admitted to Le Figaro at the time of release: "The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I've ever read, but I couldn't find that same emotion on screen.... A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. But it's a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It's up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved."

By "each person" I would guess that Penn means "Mostly men with daddy issues in the Boomer to Gen-X demographic." Which is fine! As someone who does not meet those criteria, I was still indubitably moved. I will say that while 10 years has not made Tree feel more relevant to me, I will always love that this loony, esoteric, and wildly ambitious anomaly of a movie actually got made and distributed — and if Malick ever decides to remake Jurassic Park, I am all in.

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