Cannes 2011. Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"

Updated through 5/22.

"Partly because of his devotion to a meticulous, artisanal approach to filmmaking, and partly because of the sheer secrecy in which his projects are enshrouded, a Malick film is more than an event — it has the religious quality of an ecstatic unveiling." That's Tim Robey in the Telegraph back in early April: "By Malick's standards, the period that has elapsed since his last film, 2005's underseen Pocahontas epic The New World, is little longer than the blink of an eye — his 20-year absence between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) is the stuff an entire legend is built on. Still, when you bear in mind that shooting for The Tree of Life began in early 2008, and the film was first tipped for release during in 2009, the delay has been torture enough."

The wait's over, Twitter's a-flutter with mixed instant takes and the first reviews are just coming in.

"Brandishing an ambition it's likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfill, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind's place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amidst its narrative imprecisions." Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter: "This fifth feature in Terrence Malick's eccentric four-decade career is a beauteous creation that ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection. As such, it is hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize even buffs, some of whom may fail to grasp the connection between the depiction of the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family. But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film."

"A magnum opus that's been kicking around inside Malick's head for decades and awaited by his fans for almost as long, the film will certainly invite even-more-vociferous-than-usual charges of pretension and overambition, criticisms that are admittedly not entirely without merit here," grants Variety's Justin Chang. "Taking the director's elusive, elliptical style perhaps as far as it will go, The Tree of Life is nothing less than a hymn to the glory of creation, an exploratory, often mystifying 138-minute tone poem that will test any Malick non-fan's patience for whispery voiceover and flights of lyrical abstraction…. An opening quotation from the book of Job ('Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?') lays the celestial groundwork as the film eases the viewer into the preadolescence of Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three boys in midcentury small-town Texas. The first of numerous narrators speaks of two possible paths through life: the way of nature, embodied by the boys' stern taskmaster of a father (Brad Pitt), and the way of grace, represented by their sweet, nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain)…. The link between Jack's story and the film's prehistoric reverie is never made explicit, though its essential meaning could scarcely be plainer or more deeply felt."

Time Out London's Dave Calhoun finds it "difficult not to conclude that this hugely anticipated film from American cinema's lesser-spotted poet of man and nature is a work that stretches itself so broadly by asking the Big Questions that it ends up dealing in platitudes…. [F]or all the grand ideas and the sweep of history at its core, the film does feel repetitive and even simplistic. It's not so crude as to portray Pitt's character as demonic or evil, but its portrayal of Chastain's character as an angel of the Earth does begin to feel shallow, and the ritual loss of innocence that the sons go through also feels labored. It's a film that fascinates as much as it frustrates. Its saving grace, though, is that The Tree of Life always feels honest and never cynical. It feels both relevant to us and personal to the filmmaker."

At the Alt Film Guide, Andre Soares quotes from Fabrice Leclerc's review for L'Express, noting that he, like many, sees similarities between The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey: "A deluge of images, planets, dinosaurs, impersonal skyscrapers, the false sweetness of the family nest: with Tree of Life, Terrence Malick ventures into a narrative experiment and visual delirium that leaves one speechless. His mastery of the craft is near perfect; there's an idea in each frame and the film is experienced as a long and admirable voyage through creation."

"Despite the Edenic title, the Book of Job is a big theme here, cited explicitly several times and implicitly more often," notes the Los Angeles Times' Steven Zeitchik. "Indeed, in addition to youth and aging, and love and family, this a movie very much about sadness and suffering. Toward the end of the film, we get back to [Sean] Penn's Jack [as an adult], who at quick moments throughout all this has been shown wandering through various forms of rugged terrain. As Alexandre Desplat's score swells, Jack ends up on a beach, in a scene we won't give away but whose meaning will no doubt be among the most debated of the movie."

"Make no mistake, Malick certainly believes in a higher power, and that firm and clearly stated belief may be too much for some viewers," remarks the Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth.

"After resisting Malick's guileless and unabashed faith-probing, I found myself moved by the big themes of life, death, belief and trust in a higher power," blogs Screen's Mike Goodridge. "The film requires that level of surrender and, once given, it provides rich rewards. The more cynical among us will struggle to accept it."

For Entertainment Weekly, Anthony Breznican describes the "mosh pit of fearsome determination" outside the Grand Théâtre Lumière before this morning's screening and the press conference that followed.

 



The story behind the film's making has been recounted in varying degrees of detail over the past few years. In this week's New York, Bilge Ebiri boils the narrative down to eight essential plot points. (He has a followup entry on his own blog, by the way.) If you need an even more succinct version, Steven Zeitchik has a two-minute rundown in the LAT: "Jack Fisk, the director's longtime production designer and collaborator, says the ideas have been dancing in the back of the director's mind since he began making films. 'Terry had been collecting footage for decades, since Badlands,' Fisk said, referring to the director's acclaimed 1973 debut starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. 'Things like eclipses and other natural wonders, just for this film.'"

Kaleem Aftab talks with Chastain for the Independent: "'We filmed it three years ago and he always works on it. He would call me up and say, "can you do some voice-over for me?" And he'll send me 30 pages. I'll be in London or wherever and go into a sound-booth and whisper these lines, you know, in Terrence Malick fashion, and then he would use maybe one line, maybe nothing, and he would edit, I did that maybe over 30 times.' Not that Chastain is complaining. She gushes when she talks about 'Terry' and has nothing but good words to say about him. While most people would sing about being in a film with Pitt and Sean Penn, Chastain saves her praise for the director. Before she went to the audition for the film she watched all of Malick's films in chronological order — an experience that felt 'like you've been to church.'"

Merie Wallace talks with cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki and his team for ICG Magazine. One cameraman, Jeremy Rodgers, recalls: "The actors were rehearsing their lines in full wardrobe and ready to roll, when Terry suddenly noticed a butterfly. It wasn't uncommon for him to get excited over things like a bird perched on a tree branch and want to film them. So we followed the butterfly through three blocks of Smithville. Jessica gracefully stepped out into the middle of the street, backlit by the morning sun. She held her hand out and the butterfly came full circle and landed directly on it. It stayed there for some time. We were joking around afterwards that everyone is going to think it's a CG effect, but rest assured, it's a real butterfly, and Chivo got it all on film." Kodak has an interview with Lubezki as well.

Brad Pitt Press interviews the object of their fandom: "There are, in the majesty of nature, all roots of the drama which is taking shape in this family."

Back to Tim Robey in the Telegraph for a moment: "Malick has supposedly already finished shooting his next project, tentatively entitled The Burial, with Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz and Javier Bardem in key roles. At his current work rate, we can expect to feast our eyes on that one some time around 2017."

Viewing: Ray Pride has video from a master class at the 2009 Thessaloniki International Film Festival during which Alexandre Desplat discusses scoring the film. Browsing: Coudal Partners' rich collection, Stuff About Terrence Malick. Related: Last week's entry on the Malick retrospectives in New York and Los Angeles; and Adrian Curry on the poster.

Updates: "Terrence Malick's mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: "[I]t's a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love…. I will admit I am agnostic about the final sequence, which suggests a closure and a redemption nothing else in the film has prepared us for. But this is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that's thinking big. Malick makes an awful lot of other filmmakers look timid and negligible by comparison."

Micropsia, indieWIRE and Ioncinema have begun collecting critics' ratings.

"[S]trong visuals don't necessarily equal strong visual storytelling," argues Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "If Malick could tell a story mostly with pictures — and faces — why would he need so many voice-overs? … Malick is doing what lots of directors do as they get older and ponder larger issues. I'm sympathetic, at least, to his intent. But he's trying to answer big questions by making the biggest movie possible. Where is God when you need him? The one place he forgets to look is in his characters' eyes."

Guy Lodge at In Contention: "It's the first of Malick's films to feel like the product of more than one purposeful creative urge; his first to preferentially separate its thematic concerns from its narrative ones, such as they are; his first… in which character is allowed to become landscape. His most open-armed and structurally undisciplined film to date, it might yet prove his least rewarding." All in all, a very thoughtful review and definitely a recommended read, but fair warning: If you don't want to know about that controversial final scene, stop before the final two paragraphs.

 

 

At Cargo, Ryland Walker Knight writes a letter: "Mom, when you see the movie, let it talk to you."

Anne Thompson: "While Malick's characters ask God for spiritual guidance and meaning, Pitt describes Malick as a spiritual man, but not a 'compartmentalized Christian.' It reminds me of the way actors used to talk about Kubrick. Actors may revere such finicky filmmakers, who bear the burden of high expectations, but the experience of actually working with Malick was 'exhausting,' admitted Pitt."

"In his previous films, a sense of wonder at the mysteries of nature, the human spirit and the cosmos was always there in the background, lifting, contrasting and sometimes ironically critiquing the main story," writes Screen's Mark Adams. "In The Tree of Life, it very nearly is the story — and the result is a cinematic credo about spiritual transcendence which, while often shot with poetic yearning, preaches too directly to its audience. If ever a whole film were on the nose, this is it."

"I love The Tree of Life," writes the Guardian's Xan Brooks in his Cannes diary. "I think it's extraordinary; a high-minded, unashamedly serious picture about the infinite and the finite; about how beauty is fleeting, how we screw up our lives and how the only thing that survives us (maybe) is love."

"More meditation than movie, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is bound to mystify, awe and exasperate in equal measures," predicts indieWIRE's Eric Kohn.

For Drew McWeeney at HitFix, the film's "a beautiful, at times infuriating, undeniably indulgent new effort that comes dangerously close to self-parody at times."

"Malick goes one on one with God, not to mention Stanley Kubrick, and on both counts comes up short — very short." The Voice's J Hoberman counts the ways, and then: "Whereas Malick's The Thin Red Line maintained a dialectic tension between James Jones's novel and Malick's adaptation, as well as battlefield combat and Emersonian transcendentalism, the tension here seems to exist in Malick's head. The Tree of Life is less profound than profoundly eccentric, while too solemn, pompous, and genteel to be truly crazy. The movie disengages the mind, even as it dulls the senses."

"Can any critic fully trust their initial reaction to such a thematically mammoth film like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life?" asks Glenn Heath Jr at the House Next Door. "Since my own relationship with all Malick's films remains fluid, I'll try to reveal certain impressions about his latest project at this one moment in time, at this particular crossroads of perception. It's most definitely a profound and shape shifting work, a towering examination of the way light and sound both comfort and repel. In turn, my thoughts will most definitely follow suit, morphing over time with repeat viewings." And that he does over the next handful of paragraphs before adding, "There will undoubtedly be people who think it falls short of its astounding ambition. I disagree completely. The Tree of Life is Malick's ultimate doctrine on light, sound, religion, rage, regret, guilt, promise, and memory."

Viewing (3'29"). The Guardian's Xan Brooks elaborates on his own initial reaction and gathers others from the premiere.

Haven't mentioned this yet, but Melissa Anderson does in her dispatch to Artforum today: "As expected, Malick's cosmic grandiosity — often sublime, sometimes ridiculous — proved too much for many journalists, who began booing viciously before the film even ended; not even the rapturous applause of Tree of Life's comparable number of admirers could fully drown out their disdain."

"Malick makes lushly ambitious and archaeologically deep films that take time to sink in," writes the Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu. "They're especially unsuited to the frantic scrums and instant judgments of a festival like Cannes. Yet after one viewing, I must confess to being underwhelmed. Though it has scenes of great beauty, and just about keeps you compelled with a sense that something important is about to be disclosed, it resembles a Malick-hater's parody of a Malick movie, an overwrought compendium of topographical and cosmic imagery that awkwardly sits alongside an assiduously-constructed, but far from exceptional depiction of emotionally repressive small-town life in 1950s America."

"It's Remembrance of Things Past at the Natural History Museum," suggests the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "This is a work of art by a man who, while having lost touch with reality, is aching to arrive at some understanding of himself. Malick has, at least, to be met on his terms. Yet the movie is so terribly, abstractly personal. If the point is 'Why are we here,' then it feels fair to ask the film, 'Why are we here?'"

Jada Yuan for Vulture: "Leaving the theater today, we felt compelled to pause and look around, marveling at the choices and happenstance — both good and bad over 30 years — that had led us to the incredible luck of being here in Cannes, standing on the steps of the Palais, exiting a Terrence Malick movie. Point well made, Mr Malick. Point well made."

Updates, 5/17: "The film is an affirmation of Mr Malick's belief in the power of cinematic images to express the sublime (the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki) and, perhaps, of his faith in the audience to meet him with equivalent seriousness," writes Manohla Dargis. "It also serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story. It isn't that these life questions aren't asked in our movies; they are, if sometimes obliquely. Rather it's the directness of Mr Malick's engagement with them that feels so surprising at this moment, and that goes against the mainstream filmmaking grain."

Also in the New York Times, Dennis Lim looks into the film's making, talking with Fisk, Lubezki, and: "As Mr Malick's films grow increasingly allusive and amorphous, he seems more than ever to find them in the editing. 'Our focus was to make it more of an experience and not about plot,' said Mark Yoshikawa, one of the five editors who worked on The Tree of Life. 'The flow of the film was an ever-changing animal.' Without a linear story to guide them, the editors had to integrate live-action scenes that shift between two time periods (and more than one reality) with nature shots and special-effects sequences…. Dan Glass, the senior visual effects supervisor, said that the guiding principle was realism: 'There's not a shot that doesn't have something natural or organic in it.'"

"The movie is a fever dream, wholly immersive in the elastic, supple and continuously alive to what it means to be alive," writes Patrick Z McGavin. "The fact the movie exists is something to celebrate. It's a rebuke to the system. Tree of Life is another of the director's ruminations on the state of being. Imagine the contested epilogue of Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence extended to one-hundred and forty minutes. The movie marks a strong formal and stylistic connection to the director's standing preoccupations — a moral inquiry about nature of man, the death of innocence, nature undone and veritable spoiled Eden."

Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum sees a "(typically) fascinating but confounding jumble of two works in one. Under the circumstances, I'll call them the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Or maybe the luminously precise and the woo-woo spiritual-lite…. There's a certain awesome delight to be had from giving oneself over to all this narrative ambition and visual bravado, this swirl of desire and yearning, bumping up against the limits of translation on the part of so interesting an artist. But like an inspiring sermon or a meditation session that goes off on too many tangents, The Tree of Life leaves this seeker less serene than she had prayed she would be."

 

 

To those who wonder "whether it has a story at all," Salon's Andrew O'Hehir suggests, "Malick might respond to that question with a question of his own; he was once a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Oxford, after all. Does the Bible tell a story? Do the Upanishads? Does the 13 billion-year history of creation — large or small C, as you prefer — tell a story? Because those are relevant touchstones or reference points for The Tree of Life.... One of the many reasons to admire Malick is that he is far less reliant than other major directors on other people's movies. I mean, I'm sure he's seen plenty of them, but he never seems obsessed with quoting obscure genre films or sequences out of Eisenstein or Michael Powell, or making work aimed at fellow directors and their legions of fans and followers. So the fact that The Tree of Life clearly has a relationship to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey feels both deliberate and carefully considered. You could almost call it a remake or a reverse-engineered version of Kubrick's massive head-trip, one in which humanity begins in space and then returns to Earth."

"Saying more with less, Darren Aronofsky's criminally underrated The Fountain stands above Malick's effort as a gloriously pretentious tree-of-life saga containing real emotions, not just shocked awe," argues Aaron Hillis at Moving Pictures.

Time Out New York's David Fear: "There are moments in this magnum opus that made me well-up with emotion, followed by choral-music-scored vignettes of such maximum perfume-commercial ridiculousness that I could feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment for the director; then rinse, repeat."

"Critics still rhapsodize about the scenes in which the locusts ravage the crops in Days of Heaven, or of the beautiful Midwestern landscapes in Badlands," notes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "The difference with The Tree of Life — and what makes it such an unusual film — is that it is comprised almost entirely of grace notes."

Scott Foundas, blogging at the Film Society of Lincoln Center: "This is, I think, the film Malick has been building up to over the course of his highly uneven career, the one in which the tension in his work between man and nature, the physical and the metaphysical, sits in perfect balance, and where Malick's philosophizing — which in his last picture, The New World, bordered on the fatally naive — feels sage-like, prophetic." He also notes that the family at the center of the story "bears more than a passing resemblance to the one Malick grew up in during the same years in Austin," which leads us to...

"Few critics," notes Time's Richard Corliss, "have addressed the film's plainly autobiographical central section, which is most of the movie." So that's what he concentrates on, noting that this section "should ring achingly true to anyone raised in a large family around the American mid-century… Malick is as tactful about these people as he is critical of some and connected to all. Affection or animosity is revealed in a glance, a tilt of the restless camera, a cut from an argument in the house to the apprehensive kids outside. You can see the dinner-table tension in every lad's's face, anxious for an explosion. In large part that's due to the natural, persuasive performances Malick has drawn from his kids — they somehow intuit how boys behaved a half-century ago. McCracken is a wonderful worrier, and Eppler, the spitting image of a young Brad Pitt, radiates the easy appeal of the child who may not even realize that he's the one who is loved best. Not all of the movie's secrets can be revealed at one screening (I saw it twice), and not all its revelations embraced. But, like the most ambitious cinema of the 70s, the film needs its audience to participate fully, to pore over the images as closely as Terry Malick the philosophy student did over Heidegger. As Malick sees it, the moviegoer is not an infant; the director is not a babysitter. It's fine if you don't get all of The Tree of Life. But try to get with it."

For Mike D'Angelo, dispatching to the AV Club, "the longer the film goes on, and the more its figures solidify into actual characters, the less magical it seems, until eventually it resembles a solid but largely unexceptional memoir not unlike, say, This Boy's Life. (Remember that one? With De Niro and DiCaprio in the Pitt and McCracken roles?) Maybe that first hour raised my expectations so high that no second hour-plus could possibly fulfill them, but my gut feeling is that Malick got distracted from his overall conception by a desire to revisit specific incidents from his childhood, by the need to depict his father rather than simply a father. And the film's denouement, which attempts to circle back to transcendence, felt disappointingly banal, even a bit drippy. The Tree of Life is a major achievement, and I'd be perfectly happy to see it win the Palme d'Or (it's my personal vote as of this writing, since Martha Marcy May Marlene and Miss Bala aren't in Competition), but the space I'd cleared for it in my list of the five or ten greatest movies ever made remains empty."

Barbara Scharres, blogging for the Chicago Sun-Times, attended the press conference: "Chaz Ebert revisited the question of why Malick chose not to attend the press conference. The stars and producers really circled the wagons at that point. Malick evidently inspires tremendous loyalty in those with whom he chooses to work. Pitt, Chastain, and the four producers present were clear that the director's privacy is sacrosanct. Pitt said, 'He wants to focus on the making, not the selling of the real estate.'"

Jonathan Crocker for Little White Lies: "Unwinding a jump-cutting meta-narrative with a huge classic soundtrack and almost no dialogue, The Tree of Life isn't the mess or the masterpiece that people were predicting. It's something else: cosmic, cryptic, frustrating, frustrated, awesome, intimate and, really, the sort of film that cinema can't do without."

"If nothing else, this film’s particular narrative floatiness is a natural step for a filmmaker whose films have become increasingly fluid in structure." Leo Goldsmith promises more on Malick to come at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. Meantime, the Playlist posts three more reviews.

Listening. The Playlist lists all the music played in the film that isn't part of the original score and gathers a couple of dozen tracks in all.

Update, 5/18: "Full of low angles even more extreme than those employed in The New World, the camera ostensibly pointed towards the place 'where God lives' but slanted for total disorientation, this element is both boldly shorn of key narrative detail — which can be thrilling — and also tends toward the most apparently facile visual symbolism — which sometimes seems to stall Malick's transcendent flow of ideas and imagery." Karina Longworth for Voice Film: "A mysterious film about the unknowable, Tree of Life is the only thing I've seen at Cannes this year that I can imagine engaging in a conversation with and about for years to come."

"[P]ortentous, overblown, and sanctimonious," declares Ronald Bergan at Bright Lights After Dark. "I cannot take seriously a film that takes itself so seriously. For all its cosmic pretensions, it is essentially a hollow, unsubtle exercise, far removed from the transcendental cinema of Dreyer, Bresson, and Tarkovsky."

Jonathan Rosenbaum presents "reviews of two Malick films that I like much more than The Tree of Life, written almost a quarter of a century apart. First, my review of Badlands from the November 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin," and second, "my review of The Thin Red Line from the January 15, 1999 Chicago Reader."

"The Tree of Life's fetching images are like glowing shards of glass, and together they form a grandiose mirror that reflects Malick's impassioned philosophical outlook," writes Ed Gonzalez in Slant. "It's unquestionably this great filmmaker's most personal work, a revelation of how he came to be, why he creates, and where he feels he's going. And though it's also a highly self-absorbed vision, emotionally aloof by aesthetic design, in connecting his elliptical depiction of his own spiritual making with a customarily quizzical regard for the shape of all things, from the veins of a plant to the wrinkles of the human face, Malick is sincerely asking us to scrutinize the meaning of our own creation."

Dennis Lim interviews Pitt for the New York Times.

At the Awl, Choire Sicha has a message for the "Cannes-going blog-bots and would-be critics."

Daniel Kasman here in The Notebook: "The Tree of Life often has an ungainliness, a lurching failing, corny unsupported leaps forward or back, or even, in jump cuts within a scene, leaps aside. But this lurching, this sometimes-failing of the montage is the casualty of extreme cinematic risks that Malick and his team succeed — and fly — with so much — and so high — that one cannot but marvel at, be moved by, alight on the faith in the form on display."

"For all the awe-inspiring majesty of The Tree of Life's cosmic visions," writes Bilge Ebiri, "it's still all in a minor key, understated, mournful. The Texas scenes don't bend to the tonal will of the natural history sequences – no, it's the other way around. From cells clustering and cooperating to form life, to a dinosaur showing what might be history's first act of mercy, Malick's eye is focused not on how we fit into the cosmos, but on how the cosmos fits into our lives…. I can go on and on, and I probably will once I've had a chance to see the film again. But for now all I can really say is that it's magnificent."

 

 

Updates, 5/19: Robert Koehler at Filmjourney.org: "The tragedy of The Tree of Life is the film itself, a project of such profound importance to the filmmaker that he worked on concepts and images for it ever since he's been a filmmaker — nearly 38 years…. He sweated out several 200-page drafts, and when producer Bill Pohlad told him a decade ago that his script contained two films that weren't joined into one, he worked on it some more, making The New World in the interim. It's now clear that Pohlad's criticism was precisely on point; what hardly makes any sense is why the film was subsequently funded and produced when the very problem Pohlad defined was never resolved. Like the New Age itself, The Tree of Life is an aspirational quest that can't come full circle, since it never determines what it is in the first place, and concludes as a cinema con."

Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg: "Malick's first directorial outing in six years is unwieldy, intransigent and inscrutable — but so is the Bible, and for the faithful, The Tree of Life offers a delight for the senses and an eternal vision of the human condition. It's also so diaphanous it's almost impossible to discuss in concrete terms…. The Tree of Life may yield more evidence of planning on repeat viewings. But on first impression, I had the sense that Malick was less rocketing toward the sky than winging it."

For Glenn Kenny, writing for MSN Movies, "the most crucial affinity Tree has with 2001 is that it's the most bold and unconventional and visionary picture made using the apparatus of big-studio pictures since the Kubrick film. That alone makes it kind of a mind-blower…. I recall another very bold filmmaker, Russia's Andrei Tarkovsky (to whom Tree of Life also seems to owe quite a bit), balking at the designation 'experimental film.' There is no experiment, Tarkovsky said, you've either got a vision or not; you either create the work or you don't. Well, Malick has created the work, and it is a complete and fulfilled and often amazing vision."

Updates, 5/20: Gabe Klinger has three short but intriguing anecdotes to tell at Sight & Sound.

"Never before has a Malick film felt as pressingly personal," writes Nick Schager at the House Next Door, "and thus it's difficult not to view Penn's middle-aged Jack as the director's proxy. Lost in soul-crushing metropolitan structures, or while wandering a signifier-laden spirit-world desert, Jack is an exile trying (as with so any Malick protagonists) to reconnect with an idealized innocent-Edenic past, as well as to wrestle with the legacy of his father, in the hopes of attaining salvation and peace…. If the details of Jack's attempts to achieve a stable accord with his father (and himself) don't neatly converge, and if the action's chronology doesn't quite gel, it's because Malick treats his material not as literal, but as emotional fact."

"Terrence Malick's new film is a form of prayer," writes Roger Ebert. "It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude."

Updates, 5/21: I've been waiting all week for someone to bring this up, and finally, John Bleasdale has: "In the 2002 Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze film Adaptation, there's a scene where a neurotic writer (Nicholas Cage) is asked how something began, and his manic imagination is sent back to the Big Bang, apes, evolution, on up until when the question was asked. Terrence Malick's new film, his first for over five years, takes that notion seriously." Is this a good thing? Bleasdale believes so: "Malick demonstrates that he is a true master of cinema."

Adam Cook announces a week-long feature at Cinémezzo, "Ebb & Flow: The Films of Terrence Malick."

Update, 5/22: "This is very much a Freudian movie," writes Dan Callahan at the House Next Door, "which also places it squarely in the mindset of the 1950s, and Jack certainly wants to kill this Father, at least metaphorically, to be with this Mother that he remembers flying but also sees at one point as a fairy princess in a glass coffin, waiting for a kiss from a Prince. This is a clear enough image of desire, but not everything is as clear-cut in The Tree of Life. At one point, Jack steals a white nightgown, tries to hide it and then throws it into a river so it can float away, Ophelia-like; it all happens quickly, for everything happens quickly in this movie. As this was happening, I went right from thinking, 'Why is he doing that?' to 'I know why he's doing that,' but I couldn't put that knowledge into words. It's too emotional, too much an image and an instinct for words."

Cannes 2011. Index: Reviews, interviews, coverage of the coverage. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

Responses

13 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • a Smith

    I think it’ll be more interesting to see what the lasting reactions will be, given that expectations have bubbled. Still, I imagine many are relieved to be able to breathe again.

    Given that so many who would download this will also pay to see it once able, let’s hope for a blockbuster-summer-movie-style file sharing dissemination.

  • Srikanth Srinivasan

    Delirious. How did you ever make through this jungle? I also liked Lodge’s and Bradshaw’s reviews.

    Truly amazing work, David.

  • David Hudson

    Thanks! Looks like we have two camps so far, the beautiful-but-empty on the one hand and the rapturously-blown-away on the other. Wonder if the general release in a couple of weeks will tip the scale.

  • Srikanth Srinivasan

    True that.

    Eagerly waiting for the roundup of MMMM…

    Cheers!

  • Mac
    “Mom, when you see the movie, let it talk to you.”

    Barf.

  • ralch

    “[S]trong visuals don’t necessarily equal strong visual storytelling… If Malick could tell a story mostly with pictures — and faces — why would he need so many voice-overs? … I’m sympathetic, at least, to his intent. But he’s trying to answer big questions by making the biggest movie possible. Where is God when you need him? The one place he forgets to look is in his characters’ eyes.” — Haven’t seen the film, of course, but I love this bit by Stephanie Zacharek.

  • profoblivion

    Is America the only country without film philosophers? The majority are strongly athiest (Haneke, Dumont), but Malick is defiantly spiritual. It seems odd to me that more people aren’t at least grateful to have a filmmaker who dares to make such a film, since this type of philosophic inquiry and introspection seems anathema in our culture. Movies this impressionistic are rorschach tests — people see in them what they want to. The flaws of the film are our own: if it comes up short in answering the big questions, that’s because we do. The film seems syncretic in form, if not philosophy. It’s no different from many new age beliefs in its “We are all connected” tone, but achieves that through its grandiosity of spirit, rather than an Avatar barrage of action. I think the best review of this film will deal with its metaphysics, rather than the narrative principles it breaks. What critic will be the first to talk about its philosophy and eschew the easy platitudes that film reviews traffic in? I want to read a review that talks about Malick the philosopher, not Malick the Hollywood Legend. One last thing: there is some precedent for what Malick has done. To me the Cannes reaction (instant boos) aligns him with other mavericks like Antonioni, whose own now-acknowldged masterpieces received the same ill-treatment. What pettiness. Do they realize that Malick, like other European aeteurs, has created his own cinematic language? Reviews like the one above miss the point: Maverick is as disinterested in “storytelling” as Antonioni. That’s fairly obvious. However, his aesthetics are strongly Einsensteinien, in the way he links disparate images to construct profound ideas. He seems to be restoring the primacy of montage, in a way no mainstream filmmaker has attempted in a great while.

  • Francisco

    Referring to David Hudson’s comment, I think I’m leaning towards the beautiful-but-empty camp, even though I appreciates the flashes of brilliance of the film. I find it ironic that it tries so hard to be deep yet, in my opinion, ends up pretty superficial.

  • zaviar wun

    re Professor Oblivion – The first thing I thought of, when I first heard news of the divisive reaction at the Cannes press screening, was the jeers that greeted L’avventura’s premiere back in the day. We all know how that film held up; putting Malick in that linage almost guarantees his film will be remembered as a game-changing classic.

  • Gabriella Ker

    Does anyone think like me that Baraka show a hundred times better cosmic issues and nature and grace debate ?
    Baraka is full of these fundamental interrogations between humankind and religious aspirations. But in a such clearer, amazing, and more beautiful way than Tree of Life.
    For sure T.Malick had not seeing this one, otherwise he wouldn’t do this work.

  • juan jose namnun

    cant wait to read john Baily impressions this movie!
    and also hans zimmer s ! and wouldnt be great to hrar what haxkell welxler have to say?

  • amazing

    Few days before, i was watching trailer of Watch The tree of Life, and it was quite appreciable. This story about a small 11 year old boy, who gets to know the fun of life in different phases, is a very unique concept. Brad Pitt, with his new hairstyle, is also looking good. Now, as it got the award at Cannes, i think that this movie will do well this summer.

  • Pan32

    The film’s religiosity caught me flat footed, and I missed , of rather failed to appreciate the large sign posts along the way, like the Burma Shave signs along the Texas roads of the time of the film, for I grew up only a few years before that time, and only a short drive from where it was filmed. To say it mirrored my own experience, is something of an understatement. But conceptually it addresses the great existential mysteries but from a Judeo-Christian perspective quite literally and that may be the crux of the puzzlement or disappointment: a lack of knowledge of that tradition. The film is in 4 movements and the last is the weakest but only because it is the weakest in theology. Perhaps because it does not exist. .

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