The Best Picture Nominee I Turned Off Halfway Through

It takes a lot for a movie to get me to turn it off or walk out midway through. I can’t actually remember the last time I did so, though I do recall strongly considering leaving in the middle of Transformers 2 as my brain was literally hurting from the sheer amount of stupid I was seeing.

I never imagined that the next movie I’d give up on would be a Best Picture nominee, but here we are. In my quest to see all the nominated films before this year’s Oscars on Sunday, I attempted to make my way through Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I just could not do it.

I feel defeated as a critic, and perhaps now I’ve realized that my tastes are too mainstream to be a “real” movie reviewer, the kind that fawns over pretentious films like The Tree of Life and thinks it deserves to be honored as one of the ten best movies of the year.

I already had a full dose of pretension with Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia in 2011, and while I deemed that too high concept for its own good, I got through it. At least a narrative existed in the film where it was somewhat possible to grasp the story and allegory you were witnessing.


But Tree of Life? It’s nonsense. Gorgeous nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. Terrence Malick attempts to weave a story about a man (Brad Pitt), his son (grown-up as Sean Penn), death and the meaning of life. It’s a collection of beautiful camera shots of picturesque scenes that have no distinct connection to each other in the least.

Furthermore, sporadically it’s spliced together with long stretches of random shots of nature. Space and all its planets, stars, nebulas and supernovas are featured, but then sometimes the film comes to earth and there’s actually a sequence featuring CGI dinosaurs. That was just about the last straw for me.

Just how incomprehensible is this movie? Despite starring in the film, even Sean Penn didn’t get it.

“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

“What the f*** am I doing here?”

The problem is that a narrative simply doesn’t exist. These disconnected shots of Pitt, Penn and nature all are meant to show a complicated relationship between father and son, and the fragility of life. But Von Trier’s giant world-ending planet named “Melancholia” was a much more clear indicator of the message he was trying to get across, and there are no such obvious metaphors here.

The film could be an interesting art project I suppose. It’s like going to a modern art museum and seeing vibrant splashes of color on a page. “Oh that represents a woman and her struggle with post-partum depression,” the well dressed man next to you says. “Ah,” you say, but you don’t really get it. Art critics may swoon over it, but you walk away confused.

That’s how Tree of Life will seem to all but the most snobbish of moviegoers. Its nomination shows the Oscars gives less of a shit about what audiences will appreciate than ever, and is content being wrapped up in its own little bubble of pretentiousness. There are countless stories of patrons walking out of theaters during screenings, and some theaters even had to put warning signs up on their windows cautioning that the film is “out there” and not what you’d expect going in.

“Imagine this all makes sense, OK?”

I just don’t think there’s ever been a divide between critics and audiences to this degree before. Yes, I am generalizing based on my own experience and that of a few other stories I’ve heard about those who have seen film, but I just can’t imagine anyone I know making it through more of The Tree of Life than I did, and I only got about an hour into it. I’m sure there are many of you who will claim to know the secret of Malick’s intent, and that I’m just a rube who can’t appreciate cinematic art if it danced slowly in my face for three hours.

There’s no denying that from a cinematography perspective, The Tree of Life is beautiful. Its gorgeous space and nature sequences were designed by veteran VFX-er Douglas Trumbull, who was responsible for the same sort of sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and hasn’t returned to film since working on Blade Runner. And as beautiful as these scenes may be, a high budget screensaver is not a good film.

It’s just strange to be disconnected with something so beloved by industry professionals, and it almost makes me feel dumb. But Tree of Life beat me, and was too high concept for my puny little brain to enjoy or even sit through. I’m curious if any of you had a similar experience.

  • I have to say, even The Thin Red Line was a snooze. How could anyone make a boring movie about the brutal, bloody war in the Pacific? This guy can. A critical darling but a pretentious artiste to us mere mortals.

  • Rosstopher

    Yeah, I usually try to see anything Brad Pitt is in, but I did the same thing. After the dinosaurs i was like wtf and actually left the theater, i had no idea what was happening. I was very mad, last movie i walked out on was tranformers 2 too, lol, and it was right after the robots ball scene. I have more respect for myself than that.

  • EJ

    I went into The Thin Red Line having just read the book. I was looking forward to it. It ended up being yet another time I apologized to my wife over how bad a movie was. No more T. Mack for me!!!

  • Jake Fortner

    I can understand everyone’s confusion of the film, but I’d like to say I liked the film quite a bit and did make it through, but I thought I’d like to give out some pointers about the film, and how to watch films like this in general, as I see lots of people have problems with it.

    Firstly, I’d like to mention that the film isn’t catered to the audience. In some ways, it is; films are meant to imply/produce/represent emotion and ideas using all that the filmmaker has at his disposal: this means using imagery, color, frame, character, sound, music, shapes, and meis en scene to somehow represent what idea or emotion he or she wants to express.

    The reason I’m going so all out (and I’m sure I’ll get violently called out for being pretentious or not getting it; this is the internet after all, but I hope you at least hear me out before you do so) is because there is this popular idea that the audience should be able to get it rather easily, or else the film is a falure to the audience or is pretentious. I know this doesn’t work with the Tree of Life, because this film is acutally a failure to it’s own point, and very pretentious, but I’ll get to that here soon. The audience is meant to invest their own effort into the film and understand what’s going on. I know it seems like the directors of these films just want to outsmart you, but that is more often than not just not the case. The directors of the world have come up with countless ways of trying to get the audience more engaged with films. They’ve attempted new editing styles such as constructive editing and soviet montage to engage the viewer much more than Hollywood editing (both editing styles do not simply show the viewer what is happening, but force the audience to infer where people are using strict shots; look them up if you’d like more, and you’ll notice they’re used quite often). There is also the fact that if something is important, it is often repeated as a theme. For example, in The Best Years of Our Lives, there is a repeated theme of consumerism, as every character at least once references some cliche consumerist tag line: buy one get one free! mint condition! Collect em all! These aren’t repeated without reason, but to give you the idea of what a consumerist market is all about.

    A good example of how to see film is to look at it like Orwell’s classic Animal Farm. No one in their right minds thinks Animal Farm is about animals. It’s a commentary and metaphor for communism (in particular, the rise of communism). Well, film does that too. No matter what you watch, a film is 90% of the time trying to say something. Drive was a deconstruction of genre tropes, Babel of a few years ago is about the inability to communicate in a post-9/11 world. The exciting thing about film is to watch it, engage in it, and attempt to find all of these meanings within it. And what’s even better is that there is always more than one way to interpret film, so you can always debate and discuss with others.

    A film being pretentious is only relative to how loud the director is. I know, looking at film like this sounds pretentious, and makes these directors sound pretentious, so here’s the trick I and my friends go by when watching a movie: if the director is louder than the film (or than how loud the film is speaking), than it may be too pretentious (though usually there is little doubt about it). If the film is telling you, not the director, than you’ll find the experience much more enjoyable.

    Now I know the next big argument, because I seem to hear it everywhere: isn’t film supposed to be entertainment? A way of escape? Well, yes, but then don’t review movies as an art form. If movies are an art, then they take investment, and effort to understand, and that’s the joy of film for me and most of the people who make film. But if you want to watch a movie for popcorn value, then go ahead, but don’t tell me that’s the only way film can be watched. (mostly speaking in general, not to anyone in particular). You can’t always engage in a film, sometimes it’s ridiculous, but I’m just trying to say that if you do, it makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

    I’d also like to say something to Paul, though I don’t know if he’ll get this far: You’ve mentioned you have trouble with films like Melancholia where you have to look it up after the film. Surprisingly, the more practice into watching film the easier it gets into understanding the subtle references the film is trying to say. Granted, some times you need to research the film (a lot of critics research the film’s they are to review before they review them, so it isn’t like something you don’t just do), with my personal example being Blue Velvet which upon further study I found to be interpreted as symbolic for the Oedipus complex (the film has many interpretations, but I liked this one the best). My point is just that I like your reviews, and I know you don’t quite see films the way I explained above, but damn if you don’t like movies. And that’s fucking great. So I say you keep up with the reviewing, and if you want some help on how to be a critic, maybe take some of my advice, or don’t, whatever.

    Now to Tree of Life: the film is sort of a failure by first: oversimplifying life (I know, that sounds stupid, hear me out) and second: because it’s all bullshit until you get to the kids growing up. The part of the film in Waco, Texas I thought was amazing, and loved every bit of it. That being said, why the fuck was dinosaurs, and Sean Penn there? Sean Penn was pretentious ramblings while walking around in metaphoric landscapes (and city scapes) that were obvious when looked at symbolically. It was a shit moment. The film’s attempt at simplifying all of life into two categories (represented by the mother and father) was also rediculous and pretentious. But ignoring that, or somewhat ignoring that, the scenes in Waco absolutely stunned me, and I thought that hour or so was amazing. But yeah, this film is really pretentious.

  • MattChi

    Coming from an atheist who loves astronomy, the intricacies of life and the universe. I still fast-forwarded through 50% of the movie when I rented it. It was unwatchable, and I definitely feel like I “got” the whole thing. My only conclusion is that the people who thought it was deep and meaningful, had never really sat back and contemplated the universe before or had been incredibly closed-minded their entire lives.

  • MattChi

    I kind of skim-red your way too long post, but I do agree with you. There were parts of the film I thought were well done (like the Waco part you mentioned) , but they were so surrounded by pointless garbage that over-simplified life that they hardly redeemed the movie.

  • K-Paul

    In my personal opinion, “The Tree of Life” is the best movie of 2011. It’s not the funniest movie, “Bridesmaids.” It’s not the scariest movie, “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” It’s not the most thrilling movie, “Drive.” But It is the best movie of 2011. Alot of people would ask why then? Why is this movie the best? “The Tree of Life” is the most ambitious, personal movie I have ever seen. The only movie in it’s ambition that you can compare it to is “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I don’t understand why people don’t at least appreciate what Terrence Malick has put on screen. There aren’t many movies made today that you can say is an instant-masterpiece, but I think “The Tree of Life” is one of them. I would go further into why I think this the best movie of 2011 and what it means to me personally, but I have alot of homework. I have a few links from very respectable critics who share my opinion.,56621/

  • Jim Lahey

    There are two movies I turned off halfway through: Ballistic: X vs Sever, and Hitman with Olyphant. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Deadwood and do love Justified, but Olyphant is NOT a movie actor. He’s a TV actor if there ever was one.

  • MattChi


    Read all three links you posted. I mean, I get it, I see why the movie is ambitious and the message and overall theme it is trying to portray. But it doesn’t change the fact that is was boring as sin. Anyone who has contemplated life has come to the same conclusions that the movie tried to slowly cause the viewer to conclude, but it sure as heck doesn’t take 2 hours to figure it all out.

  • Diva D

    Don’t feel like you have to like everything that comes up on the Best Pictures ballot. I don’t. That said, some people didn’t like The Artist because they didn’t like its approach. Should a movie have to appeal to everybody? I love Tree of Life and really don’t consider myself an art film guy. It just connected with me emotionally and intellectually. I thought it was hypnotic. Nothing snobbish about it.

  • Jake Fortner

    @ Diva D

    I agree with you. Steven Soderbergh said it in the making of his film ‘Che’ that it doesn’t make sense that we pay attention to things like Rottentomatoes because you shouldn’t look for unanimous praise.

    Great source:

    That link is also a great argument around films such as Tree of Life (although I’m mixed on the film, leaning toward positive), and the sad reception of Che (which is so very flawed, but for some reason one of my favorite films of recent memory).

  • Guy Incognitus

    Turned it off after 10 minutes.

  • I might sound like an incredibly pretentious asshole (I am a film student after all, so it might come with the territory) but a film doesn’t require a straight forward narrative, or a narrative at all (See: The work of Sergei Eisenstein, ). That’s just the traditional Hollywood form of a film.

    The subject of if you liking it is a whole other matter and I absolutely understand anyone disliking Tree of Life (which I loved).

  • While I understand that you don’t have to like every single movie out there I find it very reductionist that you dimiss any unconventional movie you don’t like as “pretentious.” I mean, I believe that Lars Von Trier and Mallick both created their movies with the intent of making them good, not just “artsy.” It is easy to say that something that tried to be different and you didn’t like is simply pretentious. That way, you make it sound like the director was making the movie just to prove his superiority over the mere mortals.

    Also, I don’t believe every movie has to tell a story. Cinema is first and foremost a visual art and, as such, style and feeling more often than not trumps narrative. And there absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  • Diva D


    Narrative is not “JUST” “the traditional Hollywood form.” Certainly the idea of a concise, understandable narrative has roots well ahead of the Hollywood studio system. Narrative is how humans understand the world, in the main. That’s why stories have such resonance with us. They make sense on a basic, primal level. How’s that for pretentious, by the way?

    That said, I love Tree of Life AND the story contained in it. If it had no narrative, I doubt I would have found it an effective movie. It’s simply a very different form of the narrative than most people (including the film school types I run into) are accustomed to. Doesn’t make it good or bad. In this case, I think it was the right approach.

    @Helcio Jr.

    Well, I certainly wouldn’t argue against the use of the word “pretentious” to describe a movie that feels pretentious. Otherwise, how am I going to explain my problems with American Beauty?

    It’s just like labeling a movie “unfunny” or “boring” — it may well be those things. However, some people are going to connect with the movie or look past that aspect, so it’s a little bold to go ahead and call people snobs (or in my examples, stupid or whatever) for liking it.

    Tree of Life is the definition of a pretentious movie, if you don’t connect with it. It’s basically tackling God, life, childhood, parents, grace, death, and everything inbetween. For me, it totally works, and thus is saved from the label, but if you don’t like it I think that’s a legitimate way to not like it. For me, I just don’t want to be viewed as a snob for honestly enjoying a movie.

  • Odofuran

    For me, the middle part of Tree of Life, showing all the kids growing up and their family life, was good. It was the beginning and ending parts with Sean Penn and all the random shots of dinosaurs and space that lost it for me. If the movie had just been about their childhood, it would have been great.

  • seanuz

    “It’s a collection of beautiful camera shots of picturesque scenes that have no distinct connection to each other in the least.”

    Like Sverrir said, a film doesn’t need to have a straightforward cause-and-effect narrative.
    In the real world we have enough trouble trying to trace the causality of our actions, and I think Malick reflects this with the way the narrative is structured.

    I didn’t find the film pretentious at all, and I feel like 80% of the film isn’t high concept, it just happens to be that 20% of the film features space-scapes, Sean Penn wandering in a desert and dinosaurs 🙂

    The main narrative concerning the day-to-day familiar life would make a much more accessible film and would remove some of the high-concept features and perceived pretentiousness.

    Anyway, I hope you do manage to finish watching the film one day

  • 435erewr

    good one

  • jghfyr655

    i don not know

  • MoonWhaler

    I think it’s easy to dismiss non-traditional narratives as being pretentious. Non-linear, fragmented timelines can be a more powerful way of creating a mood and getting us into the mind of a character. The Sound and the Fury or Ulysses may not of made much sense at first, but I’ll never forget how powerful the endings of Quentin’s or Molly Bloom’s sections were.

    For me, what was actually going on in The Tree of Life made plenty of sense. The brother dies in the mid 60s, Sean Penn recalls this saddening memory while living life in an ultramodern setting, in order to better understand the passing of his brother he thinks back to the creation of the universe, the creation of life and the creation of himself and of brother. The movie then stops its sporadic shifts in time and focuses on growing up in suburban Texas, dealing with inherent conflicts within every human being, especially kids growing up. The ending is still a bit iffy, but I imagine it’s Sean Penn’s character feeling unified and at peace with the past. Now if you want to understand what the film meant, well I think we all need to watch it again.

    The film uses jump cuts, drastic shifts in time/setting and b-rolls of nature because it seems to be, more or less, in the mind and memories of Jack (Sean Penn). The Tree of Life (or other great films often dismissed as being pretentious) doesn’t spend 3/4 of its run time giving intellectually insulting expository dialogue on how the mechanics of the film work, like certain other best-picture nominees.

    Set aside you biases, and let yourself be absorbed in the film while making associations with your own childhood.

  • MetFanMac

    True story: at least one movie theater played the movie with the reels out of order and the audience didn’t notice.

  • JuanSolo

    Honestly, I thought the trailer was too pretentious to even bother watching the movie.

  • Piratey

    Jake Fortner’s Wall of Text Crits for 9,999.
    Piratey has fainted.

  • Reynaldo K. Cruz

    Really? But “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud” being nominated DOESN’T bother you at all? Huh.