Cannes Film Festival: Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is part luminous evocation of boyhood, part cosmic woo-woo


Image Credit: Merie Wallace

His abiding Cannes audience may not have been waiting as long as the cosmic eons translated on screen in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But even a year’s delay probably felt like eternity for some in the throng that began queueing up at 7:30 a.m. today on a classically sunny Cote d’Azur morning for the first screening of  Malick’s avidly anticipated new movie.

What this pro-Malick, 7:30 a.m. queue participant saw: 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. The heart of the story rests with the O’Briens, a 1950s Midwestern mother and father and their three sons. Father (Brad Pitt, above, in a great, mature performance, with Laramie Eppler as the gentle middle son), an authoritarian figure true to his era, is particularly hard on his oldest boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken, yet another in this year’s Cannes parade of riveting non-pro child actors). Celestially eternal Mother (Jessica Chastain, lovely yet given little to say) yields to her husband’s disciplinary style, also true to her era.

Jack grows up to be played by Sean Penn. There’ll be no further plot information from me, just admiration and wonder at the way Malick can convey the texture of exquisitely remembered childhood in countless details as precise and passing as the weight of a parent’s hand on a kid’s shoulder, or the quality of afternoon light on a 1950s suburban street as brothers goof around in the front yard. This is Badlands and Days of Heaven Malick, master of feeling and temps perdu made cinematically tangible.

The macrocosmic is more problematic. Well, yes, you say, of course it is. But what I mean is, the filmmaker makes the macrocosmic even more cinematically problematic than it needs to be. Not only does he set the bar precariously high in the movie’s soupy beginning, with a quotation from the Book of Job and an easy-bake, voice-over homily about choosing which way to follow in life, that of nature (i.e., Mr. O’Brien) or that of grace (ideally, Mrs. O). But then, after introductory imagery with all the generic value of a “Hang in there, baby” poster, he takes a deep-dive narrative detour into nothing less than the history of creation. First comes the earth without form and void, then single-celled organisms, etc., on through evolution that features a sampling of dinosaurs. The CGI work is impressive. But the machina behind this deus work is distractingly visible.

For a grand finale, Malick takes on the challenge of depicting the afterlife, including its beach-property real estate, its promise of peace and love, and its excellent playlist of fine classical music, particularly the soaring Agnus Dei from Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, Opus 5.

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.

Read more:
Cannes: ‘Tree of Life’ draws boos
Brad Pitt picks a fight in ‘Tree of Life’ clip
What is Terrence Malick’s summer opus really about?

Comments (57 total) Add your comment
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  • DN

    The fact that the lead character of “The Thin Red Line” changed in the editing room makes me skeptical of this director’s skills. He apparently spent an hour filming rain drops on a leaf (or some type of greenery). I think this guy is overrated — and pretentious? After all, he does take forever to release a film, and there’s no reason for that gap.

    • disappointing

      Agreed. the movie was filmed 3 years ago and this is what he came up with?

      • anonymous

        Hate to hear what you think about Stanley Kubrick.

      • Stephen King

        Kubrick ruined my best book!

    • dt

      Sorry, but I think this review was a bit pretentious, as well…

      • Nick T

        They all are. But I still expect the film the film to be great

      • Howard

        Hey Mr. King Sadly for you 100 years from now no one will remember a word you wrote, though peersonaly I do like your books. Kubick on the other hand just based on 2001 will be hanging with Eisenstein and Bergman in the pantheon of artistic history,Oh and I think we saw what your vision of “the shining would have looked like in the TV version. Need I say more!

    • DFSF

      The word your looking for is “boring.” The man’s films are BORING.

      • DFSF

        *you’re, d’oh.

      • 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?????

      • Big Walt

        I don’t get the reverence for this guy. He’s directed six films, I’ve heard of two and seen one: The New World. Why so much love?

      • Adwina Lambert

        true!! tee-hee!! a case of the emperor’s new clothes – with all malick fans thinking he is wearing something!! tee=hee!

  • john

    The guy is an overated Hack. The thin red line was a boring art film with wietnam as a background with a ton of A list cameos,

    • DTO

      No, it was a boring, over-rated art film with WWII’s Battle of Guadalcanal as a background. It didn’t all take place in Europe, you know.

    • Ethan

      The Thin Red Line has WW2 as a backdrop, not Vietnam. This guy is a genius.

    • pickle t1ts

      Where’s “wietnam”? If you’re going to talk trash at least spell check and get your facts right. It was Guadalcanal you jag off.

  • Mary

    His films can be phenomenally pretentious/boring and heartbreakingly beautiful/insightful, at the same time.

    • 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.

      • Irony

        That post was pretentious.

  • Rob Grizzly

    I avoid this guy’s movies like the plague.

    • Sara

      Unfortunately for you.

  • Altricaj

    There never seems to be any grey area when it comes to Malicks’ work. People either love it, or hate it. It just a matter of taste. I happen to love them, but it’s hard to explain the reasoning. It would be like having to explain to someone why they should what the sunrise. It either means something to them or not, you can’t make it matter.

    • Adwina Lambert

      you’re just scared to admit that his films are boring and pretentious. a case of the emperor’s new clothes!!

  • Tim

    Wow. No love for Terence Malick (sp?) on this comment thread. I am a fan. I can’t wait to see this movie. I would rather see an imperfect life than a perfect Bridesmaids. And that’s not pretension; it’s just my taste.

    • anne

      I’m with you.

    • Sara


    • Frank

      Your taste just happens to be pretentious. One should find the quality in all kinds if films. There are high quality popcorn films and poor quality ones. There are high quality art films and poor quality ones.

  • Tim

    Oops. I meant to type “imperfect Tree of Life”, not imperfect life…

  • anne

    Wow. There for a moment, I thought I was looking at a slightly-past-Homefront-era Kyle Chandler.

  • Rixx55

    This is about what I expected. I worked on Days of Heaven and recall never knowing what we’d shoot from day to day. All very good to be an ‘artist’ but when you are spending millions of someone else’s money — and expecting audience to share your vision, I this you have some responsibility to at least communicate your intent.

    • Howard

      I don’t know what you did on “Day’s of Heaven” but you definitely weren’t in the Camera department. That film influenced an entire generation Cameramen and Directors. Sorry you had to sit around and wait but I would hope that Malicks creative process wasn’t to concerned about how many splinters you got in your ars from sitting on an apple box for to long while collecting OT . In those day’s I’m sure you were on it after 8 or 10. I must admit though I have heard that Terrance is not the nicest guy in the world to work with so I’ll give you that.

  • Rixx55

    … And Days of Heaven took over a year in post production to find thecstory, too.

    • Richard Gere

      What? Are you the guy who used to bring the Dr. Pepper to my trailer?

  • Ed

    Ars gratia artis

    It seems that those who watch movies merely to be entertained don’t think too highly of Mr. Malick.

    That’s hardly surprising. His films aren’t for everyone and I’m glad that the crowd who thinks The Departed is one of Scorsese’s great pictures stays away. Malick is beyond them.

    • Ralph Wiggum

      The rat symbolizes obviousness.

    • Amy

      I think The Departed is one of Scorsese’s richest films. And I love Malick. “The Thin Red Line” was – along with “Barry Lyndon” – the most beautiful film I had ever seen, maybe until Monday afternoon. Malick might be pretentious…but it’s a little like calling James Joyce pretentious. “The Tree of Life” was much more beautiful and transcendent than any 3D spectacle I’ve seen. The world didn’t look the same when I came out of the theater. Everything was heightened. The man does a simple close-up, and I almost crapped my pants in awe. The appreciation of Malick has nothing to do with elitism or intelligence. Just sensibility. I love Walt Whitman. You give Whitman a camera, you have Terrence Malick.

      • C Men

        Well Whitman’s dead so if you gave him a camera it would just point at the same boring thing for hours, so, yeah, you’re right.

  • Sara

    Terrence Malick is brilliant, just not typical. “The New World,” my personal favorite, is rapturously beautiful and yet painfully underrated and the reason why is because what Malick does is structured as cinematic poetry, not cinematic prose. A Malick film is not paced in such a way as to lead the audience through a linear plot so much as to linger of details of experience and meditate on the meanings of those experiences. I don’t say this to be pretentious or to say that one type of film is better than another–its just a different kind of experience, and audiences who are accustomed to sitting down in a theater and being shepherded through a linear plot are going to be a little put off by the Malick experience.

    • DavidJ

      Well said. People can dismiss the works of Kubrick and Malick as “pretentious” if they want, but personally I find these kinds of poetic, meditative films absolutely MESMERIZING to watch.

      It’s a shame more people don’t seem willing to take that leap, and instead want their movies to constantly spell everything out for them in the most straightforward way possible.

      • TD

        Agreed. Malick, Sokurov, Tarr, and Tarkovsky are all cinepoets/cinephilosophers. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but their films are all worth several viewings.

    • DG

      Well, I guess some people like to watch half an hour of wind blowing through grass (as I recall ‘happens’ in The New World’) … me? I have a life to live!

      • Shawn

        Well said DG!

    • Shane

      Well said Sara!

  • jk

    The article on EW about some Cannes audience members booing at the premiere said that the O’Brien family lives in Texas. Texas is not the Midwest.

  • Pittner

    His films are beautiful to look at but his storytelling is so meandering. Just when I think I’ll really like one of his movies his characters just start wandering around and have a stream of consciousness voiceover that kills the movie in my opinion.

  • Andrea

    Weirdly, this is exactly the type of reaction I was expecting from this film. Malick is a genius, imo, and even when his work is flawed, I find it incredibly powerful. Can’t wait to see this.

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