Monday, October 17, 2011

Articles on The Tree of Life

In the last few years, certain films have captured the attention of writers across the blogosphere and inspired massive amounts of in-depth criticism and analysis.  Last year, that film was David Fincher's The Social Network; the year before it was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.   I think the record for number of words spilled on the internet about a film, though, has already been seized by Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, even before the end-of-year lists and awards season, where it will undoubtedly be feted even more.  I think this is partly because the film has inspired discussion by many bloggers, journalists, and commentators beyond the usual movie bloggers and critics who can be counted on to review most of the major movies each year.  There's so much, in fact that it's rather an embarrassment of riches, making it easy to find reviews, but perhaps more difficult to find really valuable writing that offers new perspectives.  I decided to round up the best criticism and analysis I've found about the film and post it all here.

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Initial reviews from Cannes were divided.  Some critics I respect, like J. Hoberman, Drew McWeeney, Richard Schickel, and Stephanie Zacharek all called it a failure, though for slightly different reasons.  Fortunately, though, others disagreed, notably Roger Ebert and Xan Brooks.  Ebert's blog post is especially worth reading, as one of the most eloquent meditations on the film yet written.  Most reviews were more mixed, like Mike D'Angelo, Manohla Dargis, and Todd McCarthy, who all acknowledge it as spectacular but voice certain misgivings about its overall success. The Notebook at MUBI did a stellar round-up of critical reactions, and I'm going to overlap with it a bit, so go there if you haven't to find the first reviews.  It seems also worthwhile to mention here Robert Koehler's review, since it lays out a from-the-bottom-up critique of the film and its entire worldview that inspired quite a few rebuttals.  I think Koehler starts from false premises about the nature of the film's objective, but it was quite influential in the first few weeks after Cannes.

The most interesting reviews were nearly all those that admitted doubt about the ultimate meaning of the film and offered personal ruminations on it.  Glenn Heath, Jr. at The House Next Door is a good example of this.  The House Next Door, practically founded to promote Malick's The New World, had several good posts on the film.  Nick Schager discusses Malick's fascination with the beginnings of things here.  And Dan Callahan offers his first impressions of the film as constant movement here.

But one thing I noticed about the reviews out of Cannes was how rushed and confused they often were.  The chaos of the biggest film festival in the world is no place to attempt to analyze and understand a picture of such immensity and ambition, and the difficulty of doing so after only one viewing would arise again and again.  Even when the film opened Stateside, regular reviewers often found themselves confused about aspects of plot and detail, suggesting that the only thing really worth trusting from any review based on a single viewing is the general like/dislike impression.  Further analysis of the meaning of the film is/was usually hampered by the overwhelming abundance of detail in the film and the challenge of getting it all straight in one's mind before making firm arguments.  I can't tell how you many reviews I read where the writers were completely unsure of which of the brothers died, whether the death was in Vietnam, elsewhere, or even World War II, if a brother dies in the pool drowning scene, whether it was Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien that Jack sees arguing through a window, whose slip Jack steals, and most importantly, what in the world the ending means.  The later reviews and articles that come after repeat viewings are the most edifying.

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In the traditional news media:
A.O. Scott sees the film as rooted in the Romantic literary tradition.

Michael Atkinson at Sight & Sound is unimpressed, but assumes--rightly, if condescendingly--that Malick fans will love it.

Andrew O'Hehir says, "If the cosmic astronaut God-baby from the end of “2001″ came back to earth and made a movie, this would be it. (And we wouldn’t understand what it was trying to tell us, either.)"

Matt Zoller Seitz, one of the premier Malick devotees on the web, presents a guide for watching the film here.

Nick Pinkerton at The Village Voice says, "Better than a masterpiece—whatever that is—The Tree of Life is an eruption of a movie."

"Malick daringly tries to capture not just memories but the feelings aroused by the act of memory—indeed, to represent subjectivity itself, by way of the cinema," says Richard Brody at The New Yorker.

David Denby, also writing in The New Yorker, says exactly what I feel, that the film is "a considerable enlargement of the rhetoric of cinema. Years from now, the movie will be remembered as a freshening, even a reinvention, of film language."

Geoffrey O'Brien has a fairly magnificent essay on the film in The New York Review of Books--which, in itself, must be rare:  I don't think the Review of Books publishes many movie reviews.  The essay covers Malick's whole career, brings in philosophy, and manages to evocatively describe Malick's technique into the bargain.

Michael Tully of Filmmaker Magazine writes that "I assumed that my other concerns would be exacerbated on a subsequent viewing—namely the lack of “three-dimensional characters” and the absence of any “true drama”—yet this time around, those concerns were rendered irrelevant. One can’t understand a language if they aren’t listening to it properly."

Patricia Doucey at LFM writes, "As always, Malick captures his audience with a whisper."

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In the major film criticism sites:
At MUBI, Daniel Kasman's initial review describes the film as a "sublime rush of consciousness."  Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's article here is beautifully written and complex, though not wholly positive, and definitely deserves a read.  Joe McCulloch also has an article on MUBI, but his is a bit too mocking, and I'm not as much of a fan.

Reverse Shot, another publication which practically made its name with its astute celebration of The New World, devoted a whole week to publishing articles on The Tree of Life, every one of them excellent.  First up was Chris Wisniewski on the Known Unknowns presented in the film.  Then Genevieve Yue on how the film contains its own universe, a Garden of the World.  Michael Koresky is fascinated by all the small moments of life and growing up in Design for Living.  Keith Uhlich loves the dinosaur scene and believes it holds the key to the movie in The Space Between Spaces.  And Jeff Reichart relates the film to Darwin and the evolution of the cinema in Children of the Evolution.

In an excellent essay called "Terrence Malick: Moving Beyond the Threshold," Joe McElhaney investigates the way Malick depicts walking, running, and feet in his films.

This roundtable at CinemaScope is probably a must-read for all the different people and perspectives it includes, but it disappointed me that so much of it was negative.  Far too many of the "sophisticated" critics seem to dismiss this film as embarrassing and silly.  Tom Charity's last remark ("What is it Jan Sterling says in Ace in the Hole (1951)? 'I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.'") struck me as one of the most snide and depressing things I've read in a long time.  How tragic to have such a visceral reaction against any hint of the sacred.

Adrian Martin has a terrific essay at Fipresci on the occasion of giving The Tree of Life the organization's Grand Prix 2011.

At Hammer to Nail, Michael Nordine writes of fathers and sons and their place in the grand scheme of the cosmos of Malick.  And Noah Buschel thinks the film is unlike any other ever made.  Michael Ryan also discusses watching the film in both film and digital prints, and what the differences are.

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In the traditional movie blogosphere:
"I’ve been spending the past month—literally, the entire month—trying to figure out how to construct a definitive review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, said Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies in July, and I know he feels.  It's taken me this long to even get lists of other reviews up, much less my own!

Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy writes a couple of wonderful reviews here and here.

David H. Schleicher offers a reverent meditation on the film at The Schleicher Spin.

The ever-enthusiastic Sam Juliano compares the film to The Fountain (which I disagree with) and declares the film a masterpiece (which I agree with) at his wonderful site Wonders in the Dark.

Leo Goldsmith very eloquently explores Malick's flashback structure and the way the film represents memory at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Hugo Stiglitz at the Movies has a very personal review of the film here.

Roderick Heath, one of the best writers in the blogosphere, has an excellent review up at Ferdy on Films which is well worth reading (despite the fact he gets Jack's brothers mixed up).

The End of Cinema blog presents a rare, long-form review for this film that is notably personal.

The Cahiers d'Illusion gives a good discussion of Heidegger in relation to the film here.

Jake Cole at Not Just Movies offers a powerfully hyperbolic acclamation of the film here, where he also argues that the film has a completely pantheist view of the world.  I disagree, but I am still envious of his ability to craft a review and deep knowledge of cinema and art history to rely on.  We're the same age, but his skills in these areas are leagues beyond mine.

Another blogger I'm envious of is Carson Lund at Are the Hills Going to March Off?, also roughly my age, and also a far better writer and more sophisticated thinker than I.  His review of the film is typically excellent, though I find his suggestion that the film means whatever you want it to mean rather off-putting.

Kartina Richardson has a beautifully written and evocative post on the film's dealing with memory and personal experience at her blog, Mirror.

Bilge Ebiri has a beautiful, moving account of his first viewing of the film here, at his blog They Live By Night.  He also has follow-up posts here, here, here, here, and here.  That last is actually a fascinating and informative article on the editing of the film, derived from interviews with several of the editors, and replete with surprising nuggets.

Billy Stevenson at A Film Canon has a typically brief and incredibly dense review of the film here, every sentence, of which there are too few, packed with thought and meaning.

Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have another one of their epic "Conversations" about the film here.  They also discuss the rest of Malick's oeuvre here.  Their discussions are always excellent and well worth reading.

And here, Mat Viola at Notes of a Film Fanatic, attempts to completely destroy the entire worldview behind the film (and, in my opinion, fails completely).

This review (at a blog simply entitled "Reviewing Tree of Life") is very long and strange.  It seems to be a work in progress, as it has been changed a couple times since I first found it.  I don't think the author is a native English speaker, and the article has numerous misspellings and grammatical mistakes.  The conclusions he draws about the film's message and Malick's intentions are, I think, pretty loopy, discounting any religious/metaphysical/philosophical interpretation and making it into some sort of solipsistic exercise about itself and other movies.  And yet, and yet, it's still worth reading because he finds all sorts of fascinating connections between various shots and scenes within the film itself, with Malick's other films, and with the films of other great directors like Hitchock, Welles, and Bresson.  So take everything with a grain of salt, but read for a provocative essay that is capable of letting you see the film from new angles.

Niles Schwartz at The Niles Files here offers up what I think may be the single most ambitious and rewarding analysis of the film in the blogosphere.  He also investigates Malick's other films, starting with Badlands, and proceeding through Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World.  Actually, these essays are in a series, and you should really start with the first one, but they're all so long and thoughtful that you can be forgiven for skipping to the one most interesting for you.  Niles approaches the films from a philosophical perspective but not does not attempt to force them into a particular (i.e., Heideggerian) philosophical framework, instead examining how each of the films asks questions and endeavors to leave its audience with questions about what being-in-the-world really means.  He brings in Heidegger, Emerson, Whitman, Proust, and William Blake, and manages to cover just about everything so throughly that on the whole, I almost wonder what I'm doing writing my own thoughts down when they're so inferior.

One thing I noticed about the best reviews here:  They nearly all involve a personal account, whether of childhood memory or recent experience, that lets us understand why the film means so much to them.  The film almost requires this in order to present an honest review, and incredibly, it appears capable of eliciting strong frissons of memory and recognition in countless people, something of which I don't think any other movie is capable.

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In the religious press:

The reaction to the film in devout Christian circles has been interestingly diverse.  Brett McCracken's review at Christianity Today declares the film a masterpiece.  (Though reading the comments can be pretty depressing, with people declaring the evils of Hollywood left and right.)  At the magazine's sister publication, Books and Culture, Kristen Scharold rather hyperbolically declared that "America has found its prophet, or at least a director of astonishing rank."  On the other hand, Kevin Collins at First Things claimed the film, while beautiful, was lacking in any real Christianity and was therefore rather useless.  (Though the brilliant David Bentley Hart pushed back against that judgment in his blog at the same publication.)

Nick Olson at Christ and Pop Culture meditates on the themes of "grace" and "home" in the film here.

The folks at The Other Journal (An Intersection of Theology and Culture) have a series of three reviews on the film up.  One on "Nature, Grace, and the Siren Song of Nostalgia," another on "A Son of Tears," and the last on "The Tree of Life and the Lamb of God."  The first is critical, but the latter two are excellent thematic explorations ("A Son of Tears" especially), both involving terrific quotes from G.K. Chesterton.  Recommended.

The group blog Filmwell has a few different posts about the film, including one comparing it with Biblical theology, one about experiencing the film as a father, and one about what Malick teaches us about cinema.

Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches explores the film's theological context here.  Also at RD, S. Brent Plate argues that the film is really offering a third, compromise way through life exemplified by Jack's borther R.L.

Jeffrey Overstreet, an influential Christian film critic and a major fan of The New World, offers up his personal and mixed assessment at Image magazine.  And the good folks at the Arts & Faith discussion boards have a thread on the film.  The real meat of the discussion starts on about Page 9, but it goes on for pages after that; so if that's your thing, there's quite a lot interesting takes on the film there, along with provocative interpretations of some of the symbolism.

Alissa Wilkinson at Q Ideas sees the film as a reenactment of the Fall of Man.

Christopher Page, and Anglican priest from Canada, has an excellent account of his first viewing at his blog In a Spacious Place, here.  (Read to the bottom, one of the comments there is very beautiful and moving.)  He then followed up that post with no less than twenty (20) posts on The Tree of Life, and several others on Malick's other films.  I'm not going to link to each of them, but they should all be indexed at this link.

The Journal of Religion & Film has a typically thorough review of the film here.

Liel Liebovitz at Tablet thinks, quite fascinatingly, that the film is "an important and masterful work of art.  It's also the least Jewish film ever made."

And just for good measure, here's The American Muslim with a review that's mostly negative about the over-ambition of the project, but still recommends it as a worthwhile moral experience.

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This article, by Jon Baskin at The Point Magazine, is one of the very best articles on Malick that I have read, though it is confined to his first four films.  It says almost exactly what I think about Malick's perspective and central theme through his films: The ultimate thing he is trying to exemplify is a new way of looking at the world, one that sees "the glory," "all things shining," and the heroes of most of his films are the ones that display this ability most strongly.  I quibble with a few of his details, especially about Badlands, but still: a must-read essay.

Richard Neer has written an in-depth, scholarly, and complex analysis of the opening of The New World at

James A. Williams at PopMatters analyzes Malick's first four films in the context of "a career-long fascination with the archetypal narrative of a transformation from a state of innocence to one of experience." 

Matt Zoller Seitz has a series of video essays at Moving Image Source on Malick's first four films here, here, here, and here.  EDIT: And now, he has a terrific final essay on Tree of Life here.


  1. From the author of Reviewing Tree of Life:
    What’s Malick’s cinema? “Property, the whole fucking thing is about property.”
    Yes, my review is a work in progress. I changed my opinion about several details during the last couple of months. But it is almost finished. With his manias and obsessions, Malick can be, after all, a very boring person.
    No, not native English. Excuse the spelling, grammar & etc. I never use the corrector (don’t ask why) and I am a disaster with the internet, I think that’s obvious.
    Most curious thing in The Tree of Life? How Riefenstahl is made to rhyme with Bataille. Delirium is really delirium. To destroy that garbage can is to spit in the entire the "garbage of history", all the “grey theories” (Faust).
    You found my review provocative? If I just wanted to shock I would write about what happens in The Thin Red Line. Nobody knows himself or is interested in such a thing. Sweet dreams.
    You can read Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock, David Freedberg and maybe Deleuze on Sternberg as a complement.
    Yes, the review is long but: all good things for those you wait.
    By the way, why do you think Malick introduced that “attenzione” in the office? Just for the ambience?
    Another nice review for your list:

  2. Anon: Thanks for the comment. Like I said, I found your review rather fascinating, and you make interesting connections, but I still think you're way off-base in your theories. No offense on the non-native-English thing: just preparing readers for what they would be reading.

    And as for that last review: Yeah, I actually just finished reading that when I saw your comment. Weird coincidence. I found it pretty interesting--I liked the comparison to David Foster Wallace. Worth a look.