Cannes Film Festival: Terrence Malick and Brad Pitt's 'Tree of Life' draws boos, but also counter-applause

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It’s daunting to describe Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but scattered audience members at its first screening in Cannes needed only one syllable: boo.

The many supporters of the movie pushed back with counter-applause, but it was a shocking way for the movie to debut.

The Tree of Life is an elegiac litany of images and memory-like scenes more than a traditional narrative. Let’s see — in brief, it’s the origin of time and infinity through the lens of one troubled, 1950s-era Texas family, and stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, though they share copious screen time with evolving galaxies, nebulae, and surreal, symbolic representations of the world beyond.

Call it a coming of age story about the universe.

Here’s how the chaos — on screen and off — unfolded today …

The scene outside the 8:30 a.m. screening at the festival’s Grand Theatre Lumiere was a mosh pit of fearsome determination.

Malick is somewhat the J.D. Salinger of filmmakers, rarely photographed, and never submitting to interviews. Though he is hardly prolific, his handful of films have been striking for their visual splendor and meditative tones: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World.

Though the movie opens for everyone May 27, audience members crushed at the entrance Monday morning, shoving and hollering to gain entrance to a film that has been eagerly anticipated at Cannes for two years. With passions so high to see it, the movie’s debut mirrored the film’s central conflict: a boy trying to live up to the high standards of his harsh father. Only in this case, it was Cannes’ notoriously harsh community of critics and journalists.

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Image Credit: Merie Wallace

As long-form reviews were being written (check back here for EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s assessment) there was push-back against the booing on Twitter. “Yes, some booed at Tree of Life‘s end, but a) far more clapped, b) wouldn’t a monobloc of opinion be dull? And, of course, c) jerks abound,” wrote MSN Movies’ James Rocchi.

“The booing at the end of today’s Tree of Life screening was an ugly, animalistic thing that may explain why Malick doesn’t do press,” added IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.

And yes, the notoriously elusive Malick continued his long tradition of not speaking on behalf of his movies, and did not attend the press conference after the screening. His producer, Sarah Green, said he prefers to stay out of the spotlight because, “Mr. Malick is very shy and I would say I believe his work speaks for him.”

Pitt had no problem speaking instead. “He tells this micro story of this family in a small town in Texas and juxtaposes it with the macro of the birth of the cosmos and cells splitting,” he said. “I find that so extraordinary. There are parallel truths in that.”

The actor said repeatedly he could go on at length about the process Malick employed to make such an unusual film. There are few dialogue-driven scenes, and the child actors at the center of the tale were not permitted to see the script, Pitt said, instead being told roughly what to do or say. Pitt said Malick wanted everyone to follow their instincts.

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“He’s like a guy with a butterfly net waiting for the truth to go by,” Pitt said.

“It was all about capturing the accident,” Chastain added, citing a for-instance: “There’s a section where a butterfly lands on my hand. It’s not in the script, and we didn’t put anything on my hand to make it land there.”

“It’s a leap of faith, but that’s the point,” Pitt said.

Malick rented the entire neighborhood where they shot, dressed it to resemble the 1950s period, and would have the family linger together on the street, playing on swings, or working in the yard, while the capture awaited special moments.

“Then he does what he calls torpedoing a scene,” Pitt said. “The youngest child he called The Torpedo. On the first day, [Chastain and I] were having an argument, raising our voices, and we shot that take. Then suddenly he would send in Ty, as the Torpedo, and it changed the whole dynamic of the scene.”

There was some joking about the absent director, whom Chastain said tended to steer the camera toward nearby woodpecker or something else in nature if it interrupted the scene. Instead of ruining the take, that tended to be the thing Malick would rather use.

Pitt said he had no problem with the director choosing not to speak about the movie publicly. “You know how you have a favorite song and then you hear the band describing your favorite lyrics, and then you’re disappointed?” he asked the room of journalists, who responded with silence.

“No?” he said.

Follow EW’s Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican

Also: Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review of ‘Tree of Life’

Comments (141 total) Add your comment
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  • chris

    awesome

    • Maky

      I believe that movie is booed because one actually need to use brain to get message from the movie itself. Given on what kind of morons visit these festivals i am not finding it weird that movie was booed since mostly morons was there.

      • RyanK

        Morons? Compared to the average theater-goer? These are critics, journalists, and hollywood types. Cerebral movies are right up their alley. Pretentious, self-absorbed movies, however, are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people were getting that vibe, this based solely on anecdotal things I have read about the movie.

      • lover

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        ~~You’re speaking like you’ve seen it, which I doubt you have… I’m fine with people not likeing Malick, but come on, ‘Days of Heaven’ is awesome.

      • JjC

        Actually, a lot of the Cannes people are dull Leftists who abhor any movie that doesn’t clearly force an ideology upon its audience. They hate ambiguity and transcendence, because their minds are too weak to grasp such concepts, and to justify their hatred they write off all true art as bourgeois mystification.

      • Wottadoosh

        Those are some pretty big words there to go with your condescending arrogant tone, almost as if you were some snooty snob or something. Ironic much?

      • jay

        Jjc >>> and thats exactly why it recieved an award by a jury who was selected by the BOD of the cannes… moron much?

      • Tim

        Oh please! It’s called ENTERTAINMENT! Too many viewer not only was it not ENTERTAINING, it was downright painful. The duration at which he let scenes run on was masturbatic! How dar you call anyone who wasn’t ENTERTAINED by his film “moronic”, get over yourself.

      • Tim

        Oh please! It’s called ENTERTAINMENT! To many viewer not only was it not ENTERTAINING, it was downright painful. The duration at which he let scenes run on was masturbatic! How dare you call anyone who wasn’t ENTERTAINED by his film “moronic”, get over yourself.

    • Jean Guy Levesque

      What happened to Brad Pitt’s face? He looks so old and awful! Vive la Quebec!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Wha’ever

        What’s with the “vive la Québec” ? If you were actually from here you would know it’s ‘”LE Québec”, not “LA Québec”.

      • Liz Lemon

        It’s called aging. I know it’s rare to see in Hollywood.
        But I think he gets hotter with age.
        And I’m really impressed with the types of roles he’s been doing since 2005. All very different and complex. He’s making a lot of smart choices.

      • Mad Max

        I’m late to the party but I cannot believe Jean Guy thought that picture of Malick was Pitt…and that nobody called him on it.

    • Pointman

      Yes, if you don’t like a movie, you “must” be a moron. I saw the film and it just wasn’t that good. Just because you make allegory to the creation of the universe and fill your film with symbolism doesn’t make it deep I’m afraid. Granted, a good film maker should stay true to their vision, you have to keep in mind that not everyone will find that vision entertaining or cerebral.

      • Shelly

        I haven’t like many a film but I’ve never booed. Would you boo? Did you boo? BTW – the movie I don’t like that makes me a moron – Monster’s Ball.

      • alan of montreal

        the reviewer at awardsdaily.com said people didn’t start applauding for a few minutes because they weren’t sure the film was over. When Malick’s name appeared onscreen, then they knew and apparently started clapping quite a bit.

      • Taylor

        What, may I ask, does make a film deep, in your opinion?

      • Tim

        It should be entertaining life “Shawshank Redemption” or “Dumb and Dumber!”

    • MariOahu

      It was a terrible movie and deserved a boo. I think anyone who likes it is mixed up.

      • Ayumi

        My fave Christmas Carol viesron is the Patrick Stewart viesron from 1999. His performance is magnificent and it’s a terrific adaptation of the novel. Also, it’s a very sad verion.I have a bone to pick re House of Flying Daggers. While almost everyone that’s watched it loved it, I saw it about a year before it came to North America and was excited to see it after what Zhang Yimou did with Hero. And when I watched it originally, I sat there enojying the costumes and within the first 15 minutes I thought, Wouldn’t it be funny if she [Zhang Zi Yi] wasn’t blind? And lo and behold, I was right. and I hated that I was right. I hated that part of the film, I hated the daggers redefy gravity without a single explenation, and I pretty much disliked the film as whole.Now, please explain to me why I am the only only person that hates the film? I love Hero but I also really dislike Curse of the Golden Flower (for being really boring and having one of the worst music soundtracks).

  • Hey Now

    Yeah, I’ve always thought Malick was overrated. I mean I really liked Badlands but I’ve thought that every other movie he’s made has been overlong, incredibly slow but beautifully photographed. I got myself all pumped up for Tree of Life based on the cool trailer and the fact that Pitt and Penn were in it, but in the back of my mind I knew I probably wasn’t going to like it because, like I said before, I haven’t really liked any of his movies. But your not allowed to criticize Malick and be considered a “serious cinephile.”

    • tgh

      You’re speaking like you’ve seen it, which I doubt you have… I’m fine with people not likeing Malick, but come on, ‘Days of Heaven’ is awesome.

    • The Man

      You are a moron.

      • Gigi

        You’re a moron.

    • cafegodot

      You must have great depth to understand and appreciate malick’s films. Sorry for you!

    • Geek

      I agree somewhat. I think he is overrated, but I don’t think he is terrible.. I’m looking forward to seeing this because it looks worthy of a long runtime and methodical directing.

  • I think

    Some people are afraid to say the movie is disappointing and pretentious.

    • fnord

      Some people are idiots who love Twilight and Fast Five.

      • Manuel

        Some people are overgrown children who can’t fathom that someone could dislike both Twilight AND a Terrence Malick borefest.

      • Meg

        Really, fnord? So to you, anyone who dislikes Malick’s films has to be a fan of Twilight? You are the definition of overreactionary, pretentiously elitist film student. (and BTW, Fast Five was a quite enjoyable popcorn film, but I guess you are too busy watching impressionistic German films about a man and his bycicle to enjoy the simple pleasures of a commercial action film)

      • jeffgo5

        Meg = awesome. Thank you.

      • Ben

        MEG– you’re so right. Some movies are good, some movies are bad. Some movies are good because they are epic or visionary, but also some movies are good because they are awesome and kick-a$$. People can have their own opinions about whether they like a movie or if they don’t (they’d better at least see it first, though, or else they have no room to judge) but the line between a good movie and a bad movie is not based on a matter of personal opinion nor is it based on whether or not it’s got a shot at the Oscars.

      • Liz Lemon

        Fast Five was a GOOD movie. Seriously. Why is this so hard for some people to understand.

      • Tim

        I love you Meg!

  • annie

    Can’t wait to see this.

  • Joseph

    Malick’s movies are long, slow, and boring. I’m glad some people decided another one of this overrated filmmaker’s latest piece of junk

    • Logan

      You don’t sound real bright.

      • Mary

        Why? Does liking Malick somehow raises your IQ?

      • jeffgo5

        Especially when no one on this board has seen it. And somehow believe they will/do understand anything

    • Liz Lemon

      The New World was indeed all three of those things, but for some reason I still watched it like 10 times. Malick’s method of storytelling isn’t really that appealing, but there’s still something very intriguing about it. It’s like watching a moving painting.

      • Gigi

        why didn’t just make a photo slide, narrate it, and put some scores then?

  • Joseph

    to boo is what I meant to say. Sorry, poor editing on my part

    • dlauthor

      Well, thank God you cleared _that_ up. We were all worried.

  • Sam J

    Sounds like our human lives are “events” in the eternity of existence; like stars and galaxies (large), or microbes and atoms (small). All these are born/formed and all will cease to exist/die. The tree of life. Supernovas (exploding death of a star) form all the elements for any form of life. This is the begining. If I understand this correctly, this is not pretentious but quite humbling. I will see this film.

    • Anthony Breznican

      I found it humbling too. And beautiful in the way it contrasted the cosmic with the everyday.

    • charlotte

      “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.” Carl Sagan

  • pie thrower

    “The Thin Red Line” is without question the MOST BORING FILM EVER MADE!!!!

    It says nothing remotely fascinating. It is frustratingly tedious and simply carries no weight bearing message. It gives me absolutely no desire to go on watching it.

    The movie was nomintated for Best Picture against “Saving Private Ryan” and “Shakespeare In Love.” It is arguably the one film that should never have been nominated in any catagory anywhere.

    It is so mind numbingly long, that I think it just ended about 3 minutes ago….at least it feels that way. How can so many talented actors in Hollywood feel so enamored by this hack, Terrance Mallick, to want to appear in this or any of his movies?

    I will not go see “The Tree Of Life.” I will only recommend it to my most vile of enemies.

    • The Man

      Yes, stick to films like Paul Blart Mall Cop. Those are more your speed.

      • Anno

        The Man… why not try expressing your views in an articulate manner instead of resorting to lazy comebacks like insults and sarcasm?

    • pie thrower

      Thank you Anno. To The Man, I have seen “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and I’ll give you this (with no sarcasm whatsover), there is more artistic merit in Kevin James’ film than there is in “The Thin Red Line.”

      At least “Paul Blart…” had well defined characters that go through a transition albeit amidst a silly story. Still, the film was meant to have a silly story designed for families.

      “The Thin Red Line” was supposed to be film depicting the anguish of the Vietnam War, but it was nothing but a hollow mess of celebrity cameos partnered with the growl of Nick Nolte’s monotonous narration.

      So in conclusion, thank you for your suggestion. I’m only glad I was already ahead of the curve.

      …and oh yeah, you’re a moron.

      • cafegodot

        Pie Thrower, the The Thin Red Line is not about Vietnam War. It’s the “anguish” of war during WWII. I almost believed that you have seen the movie for you to deliver such a scathing comment. Hmm.

      • Dave M

        I gotta agree about those celebrity cameos. Travolta was hilariousy awful as an admiral. John C. Riley literally says one line. George Clooney pops in from the ER set at the very end for the final WTF moment.

      • Jeff

        In addition to what Dave M said–If you look at the DVD available on the shelf–Clooney is listed as the main star and his photo is featured on the DVD art!!! Really a bad film.

      • Larrance

        The thin red line does have some moments (travolta and clooney) that are so bad, and I have never been able to understand why those moments made it past the final edit. The rest of the film is amazing in beauty, editing and message. Oh, and yes it is not about the Vietnam war.

    • Steve

      The Thin Red Line is one of my favorite movies. I love commercial films. But if anything, Shakespeare in Love was the worst movie ever to win an Oscar. I guess not everyone thinks as you

      • pie thrower

        Steve, I agree with your comment on “Shakespeare…” being one of the worst to win the Best Picture prize. Still it is not one of the worst films ever made. In that year, “Saving Private Ryan” should have won the Oscar prize.

      • Ana

        Nope. “Around the World in 80 Days” holds the honor of being the worst movie to ever win an Oscar. At least it makes sense that “Shakespeare” was even nominated.

    • cafegodot

      The Thin Red Line is one of the most intelligent and deeply felt war films ever!!!

      • pie thrower

        Please explain cafegodot. Would you mind providing specific details that make you believe this?

    • Dave M

      There was about an hour in the middle where it as an actual movie. Nick Nolte as the zealous Colonel was a compelling character that was pushing the narrative FORWARD. Then he disappears and Sean Penn acts depressed and the wind starts blowing….

      • Jack Fate

        I love The Thin Red Line but your description made me LOL.

    • Ana

      I haven’t seen The Thin Red Line yet but I have hard time believing there are more boring movies than “La Belle Noiseuse” or “Eyes Wide Shut.”

      • nick

        have to disagree with you, La Belle Noiseuse is a masterpiece.

      • pie thrower

        Also have to disagree with you. “Eyes Wide Shut” is a completely underrated film, that left me thinking about what I saw long after the film ended. This was an forthright and honest portrait of what an “on the surface” perfect married couple looks like underneath that surface and the viewer is left to witness the characters’ thoughts and self imbued betrayals.

        “Eyes Wide Shut” deserves better recognition than what it originally merited.

    • Sam J

      “I killed a man today. Worst thing you can do. ‘Worser’ than rape. I killed a man and no one can touch me for it.” (The Thin Red Line 1998) Boring?????

    • Tim

      I agree Pie Thrower.

  • KAte

    I LOVED it……WONDERFUL..SMART….ON THE EDGE OF MY SEAT…..Another masterful film by a grand director

    • Justin

      lakesriversoceans on August 15, 2011 Wow! this is very civtaree Wow! Wow! Wow! U got to see right now this NEW music video about Dropping POUNDS-Shedding Weight & it’s a part of a 12 video SERIES called: I like the way you move by JM (JM THE MASTER MINUTE)

  • Andy

    See it for yourself and talk.

  • Le HIROSHI

    @Anthony,

    *

    Thanks for the up.

    *

    Kudos to Brad Pitt and everybody else in the team upon the stage for reportedly giving response to the so-called notorious crowd. You guys are such a good sport!. . . Unlike someone too selfish who otherwise would have stood up to them when needed for his own travail passionne.

    *

    By the way, Eric Kohn, IMO, was just being unreasonably harsh to the crowd. If (your movies) you’re not ready, don’t go there. Do not try to make it like booing and hissing never existed – ESPECIALLY IN THE WEST. . .

  • shane

    Wow, so much vitriol for one little movie.
    I loathe 99% of the films made today and long for some of the challenging, thought-provoking and superbly written movies that many of you are fighting about.
    But I wanted to kill myself during The Thin Red Line- it felt like it lasted as long as the war itself, and it was even worse than The English Patient, which tested MY “patience” to the max. So beleive me, its not “like Malik and have a brain or don’t like Malik and be dumb”. While its more likely that people who don’t appreciate him are probably all about Fast Five and that kind of drivel, its also possible that honestly, those of us who think may be a little too bright for Malik.

  • jeffgo5

    Wow, this really has brought out the pretentious A-hole element!

  • outside agitator

    The Thin Red Line was the dullest movie I’ve ever seen in a theater and still remember the unpleasant experience to this day. its three excruciating hours weren’t quite as bad as Magnolia but were still like being mentally waterboarded. I believe the boos.

  • Tom

    I can’t wait to see it. Because, God knows, I’m sick & tired of “The Fast & the Furious 49″ and “Scream 27″. . .

    • outside agitator

      Scream 4 was way better than The Thin Red Line.

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