Cannes Review: 'The Tree Of Life' Is Terrence Malick's Universe-Spanning Search For God

by Kevin Jagernauth
May 16, 2011 10:50 AM
29 Comments
  • |


It's a bit unfair, after years of waiting and anticipation and with a world of expectation weighing on the film, to begin writing a review of Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" just minutes after leaving the screening this morning. With nearly as much time spent in line waiting to get in as watching the actual film, we would have preferred a bit more of a chance to let it linger and marinate (and perhaps more thoughts will follow in the coming days). But let's get a couple of things out of the way to start with. Firstly, "The Tree Of Life" is not the cinema-changing, soul-shattering masterpiece it has been built up into. That said, it's a hugely ambitious and occasionally brilliant undertaking that finds the director using the story of a fractured relationship between a father and his children to ask the question of ages: where is God? And oh yeah, if you'd prefer to go into the film without knowing anything at all about it, you'd do best to skip reading from this point on.

As the trailer suggests, the film is about the two paths that Malick believes are presented to us in life: the way of nature vs. the way of the grace. To call it good versus evil would be a bit too reductive; it's more about living a life of selfishness with a focus on Earthly ambitions as opposed to one filled with love and generosity to your family and fellow man. These two paths are embodied by Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (yes, a bastardly Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), who are married and raising their three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. Pitt believes in the way of nature. He's a man whose dreams of being a musician were abandoned and who is embittered by the success of others. He continues to work hard, go to church and tithe his earnings but believes he has been unrewarded, and tells his older son Jack very simply, "If you want to succeed in this world, you can't be too good." On the opposite send of the spectrum is Chastain whose character, again as revealed in the trailers, very simply states, "Unless you love, your life will flash by." Mrs. O'Brien tells her children to look after each other and every other creature on Earth.


When the film opens, the O'Briens are suffering the loss of their middle child, receiving a telegram that he has died at the tender age of nineteen. Mrs. O'Brien is devastated asking, "Lord why? Where were you?" Malick uses this moment of death to circle back to the origins of the universe. While the loss of the child is monumental, Malick mourns that pain but also wants us to see the glory of the world that is around us and how little we are in the grand scope of things. This sequence -- which runs in the first third of the film and undoubtedly made some distributors nervous -- is an entirely wordless, evocative, music-filled and beautifully realized piece of filmmaking. We presume this was all footage compiled for the proposed "Voyage Of Time" documentary (and we hope it still happens because it will look even more stunning in IMAX) but it organically tracks life on Earth from the big bang, from single to multiple celled organisms, and then, yes, to dinosaurs, all while stretching back to reveal the glory and diversity of the world that has been created. It should be noted, that a small amount of the material is taken from stock footage and excerpted from the film "Home" by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, but the cumulative power of it is undeniable. And the work by the extensive special effects team (and researchers) tasked with imagining what space and the world might have looked like eons ago is tremendously impressive.

One we return to the characters, we start with the birth of Jack (played as a grown up by Sean Penn whose total time in the film is maybe about twenty minutes). Again, Malick forgoes a traditional narrative and uses a collection of impressionistic images and music to show the growth of this son, and the arrival of two more, and about forty-five minutes in, the more traditional "plot" finally begins to unwind. The middle section of "The Tree Of Life" centers particularly on the father's troubled relationship with his sons. He loves them deeply, but projects his own failed ambitions onto them, wanting to mould them into men that won't flinch at the world. Jack is especially a focus of his father's anger and hard love, and through a great performance by newcomer Hunter McCracken, we see him struggle with following his father's advice or embracing the world with the wonder and faith of his mother.

"Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see," says Jack, and that plea, to a God who has created the world but seemingly left us here to figure it all out, permeates "The Tree Of Life." Young men are disabled, children die or are maimed and arguments and anger abound behind the windows of the idyllic homes of the suburbs. While the film may seem at times like an agnostic's argument about whether God is watching us or if there is even somebody there at all, the thematic core is more about struggling to understand why pain and suffering is brought upon the graceful of this world. Make no mistake, Malick certainly believes in a higher power, and that firm and clearly stated belief may be too much for some viewers.

The score is filled with hymns and religious pieces (it should be noted, Alexandre Desplat's compositions seem to be used fairly minimally) and the closing sequence of the film has "Amen" ringing out multiple times from Berlioz's "Agnus Dei." Indeed, the film's overt solemnity gives the proceedings a sermon-like feel that can drag at times, evoking the feeling of a Sunday church service. It certainly doesn't help that the extensive voiceovers from Mrs. O'Brien, and Jack both younger and older, are delivered in profound-sounding stage whispers which make the spiritual dialogue sound leaden, precious and pretentious: a subtler hand at times certainly would've helped. While Malick is great at extracting layers of mood and meaning out of a single shot, at other moments, the script and dialogue lands with blunt, hammer-like force. The details used to underline Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien's differing perspectives on how to engage the world are at times presented with head-smacking obviousness: the missus gives water to thirsty criminals (really!); Dad teaches his children to be tough by getting them to hit him. This boldfacing of the thematic elements of the film is clumsy at best and in a picture that spends large swaths asking the audience to interpret, imagine and engage, it seems counter-intuitive.

The movie world is a fickle one. With "The Tree Of Life" now screened and appraised, in a few hours everyone will move on and by tomorrow it will be just another story from Cannes. Another entry that got talked about, perhaps divided some audience members (a small core booed the film, but they were quickly quieted by the rest of the Lumiere Theater) and got Brad Pitt onto the red carpet. The sun will set tonight and the great wait for and mystery surrounding Malick's film will be over. But bursting with ideas, images, sounds and a deep well of spirituality rarely ever tackled in either independent or mainstream cinema, Malick's film is still an event. With "The Tree Of Life" the director has once again created a cinematic experience that is uniquely his own, often powerful and mesmerizing, at times overreaching and overbearing, but never forgettable. It's another bold stroke from one of cinema's most original voices, so put the hype aside, and let "The Tree Of Life" take root. [B]

  • |

More: Films, Review, The Tree Of Life

You might also like:
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

29 Comments

  • Terry | May 17, 2011 6:02 AMReply

    Gatz,

    Kael questioned her responses to numerous films, in addition to the ones I listed. She claimed to have reservations about "A Clockwork Orange," "Straw Dogs," and on and on. She said so in numerous public speeches and in her own writing. Sorry you are unfamiliar with the totality of her work and public speeches. Best wishes.

  • GATZ | May 17, 2011 2:23 AMReply

    Terry: Two reviews hardly make this claim incorrect, as they are merely the exceptions to the rule. Kael herself proudly proclaimed her confidence in her "first reaction, best reaction: school of reviewing on more than one occasion. Thanks for trying to "school" us though.

  • Kelly | May 17, 2011 1:41 AMReply

    I am still going to go see the film. I saw one article though of the people booing and I thought it said everyone booed. I was taken aback but than I saw your article and you said only a small group did so I was happier. I hate when people boo especially when this doesnt sound bad at all and doesnt sound offensive. I hate rude people. I still look forward to this film. I actually saw The New World and I fell in love the first time I saw it. Still love it and Malick is a wonderful director and I can't wait to see this.

    I agree with that one poster who said one can also believe in evolution and creation.

    The Bible is not a book about how God created heaven and earth its a book about how to get to Heaven.

  • jimmiescoffee | May 16, 2011 12:32 PMReply

    i know. it just seems close to something profound and religion is a cop out.

  • roddymartindale | May 16, 2011 12:23 PMReply

    one can believe both in evolution and creation--theistic evolution, evolutionary creation.

  • jimmiescoffee | May 16, 2011 11:10 AMReply

    i'm confused by the religion of the film. considering evolution and creation of the universe segment. then its god and alot of philosophy and Job verses. wtfff

  • actionman | May 16, 2011 11:04 AMReply

    Only a "B?"

  • jimmiescoffee | May 16, 2011 10:59 AMReply

    the small group that booed was the headline of immediate twitter reaction to the film. unreal.

  • Terry | May 16, 2011 9:17 AMReply

    The notion that Pauline Kael never reconsidered a review is incorrect. The two films she did "reconsider" were Milos Forman's "Loves of a Blonde" and Jean Eustache's "The Mother and the Whore." Penelope Gilliatt admired Malick's work more than Kael, who was notoriously biased against nonlinear storytelling.

  • Alan | May 16, 2011 8:09 AMReply

    This sounds wonderful to me. I love Malick's films, he's the American Tarkovsky. Can't wait for its UK release.

  • Edward Davis | May 16, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    @gonad Oh shit, right!

    Guys, CHANGE THIS TO AN A, QUICK!

    It's a review people, chill. Just one man's thoughts. In due time you'll all see the film and you'll come to your own conclusions and your review and your observations will be your own, sheesh.

  • gonad | May 16, 2011 7:04 AMReply

    Malick will be pleased to hear his 38-years in the making work has been given a 'B'.

  • ken | May 16, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    I wouldn't really call myself a Malick disciple though, I don't think he's the be-all end-all to cinema, I do think that a Malick film is a different kind of experience than most other films.

    And now I will shutup until I see the film for myself. See you at the next Playlist blog post that I disagree with it! Should be anytime now. (I kid, I kid)

  • ken | May 16, 2011 6:16 AMReply

    Well Kevin, I would hope you would stand by a review that you wrote a few hours ago or else I would deem you to be quite unreliable lol...

    With Malick films, though, subsequent viewings always lead to better results. Always. Once you know what you're expecting, you can appreciate it more.

    I just can't see myself saying "Meh, it was alright overall" once the movie is over. I just can't!

    I think I would've felt better if you gave it like a D or something because then I'd at least say "oh well it's one of those movies."

    I can't wait to see that major closing sequence though.

  • Edward Davis | May 16, 2011 6:14 AMReply

    Ahh, and thus you strike at the heart of the problem.

    “Where other movies have fans, Malick’s produce disciples.” -- J. Hoberman

    And disciples do not see any wrong.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZGIK990m-A

  • Nik | May 16, 2011 6:13 AMReply

    I agree with Ken completely. Malick's films take time to digest, moreso than your average movie. Repeat viewings, continous pondering of what transpired on screen and how it affects you, the deadening of the hype .. all of that takes time and this kind of film certainly deserves re-evaluation. No matter what the grade is at the end, this "B" feels temporary.

  • GATZ | May 16, 2011 5:58 AMReply

    Lastly, it seems that no matter what, Malick, per usual, has delivered yet another film for all of us to (respectfully, passionately) fight about.

    Dukes up!

  • Kevin Jagernauth | May 16, 2011 5:57 AMReply

    Regarding the grade -- now hours later, and having had time to think some more and reread what I wrote -- I stand by everything in the review. The B is there because the problems I had with the film, articulated in the second to last paragraph, still bother me. And frankly, the major closing sequence will be the dealbreaker for most (and to avoid spoilers, I didn't address it fully at this point).

    But don't get it twisted. As I also said, the film is occasionally brilliant and admirable for its ambition (having ambition and meeting it are two different things).

    And also remember, I'm just one dude. More of the Playlist team see the film tonight and reactions are going to be fascinating. This isn't our final word or thoughts on the film just yet.

  • ken | May 16, 2011 5:51 AMReply

    "Does this review seem especially judgemental, reactive and unmeasured? Or is it just not good enough that it’s not an A+?"

    Well, exactly. We have no idea yet. We're all going to have to see for ourselves. That's why I think The Playlist will ultimately re-evaluate this film. I'm sure it could very well be a "B" movie, but I'm willing to make a bet that it isn't. The review made me want to see it more and I have a feeling that I'm going to fall in love with the film. It may not be immediate, but I will eventually. And I suspect it will grow with other people as well.

    I'm not just saying this as some Malick fanboy or anything, it's just it happens with EVERY Malick film. Seeing as how this is his most ambitious film yet, i just can't see it being a "B" film.

    I could be wrong, I know.

    In fact, I'm surprised this film ended up with anything but an "A" or a "C/D." I had a feeling it'd be that type of film. It just seems odd to give a film like this a "B." I see other people reacting very strongly to it.

    Keep in mind, I say these things because as a fan of both films and film reviews and I like watching how evaluations of films change over time. And I think this will be a particularly interesting case study.

  • GATZ | May 16, 2011 5:49 AMReply

    Edward:

    My missive was not an attack but unfortunately anything of a contrarian nature written in a comments section seems to be construed as such and, in turn, ellicits responses like yours (you know, the kind that use 'all caps'?).

    Anyhow, people have been writing about films and film festivals for decades and YES, they haven't always written entire full-fledged reviews in the "2-3 hours he [or, might I add, _she_) has before before his (or her) next film."

    All I was trying to say is that these reviews should be measured against the haste in which they were composed and published.

    I might be in the minorit, but I believe that the "rush to judgmnet" policy is one better left uninvoked.

    And, for the record, I highly suspect my own reaction to "The tree of Life" (whether immediate or tempered over time), will be far from the "A+" you suggested. (Not to mention that I don't reductively grade movies like a 3rd grade teacher.)

    I suppose you can now colour me argumentative.

  • GATZ | May 16, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    Oops...my zeal got the better of me:

    "...the idea of publishing a review of a film like “The Tree of Life” so soon..."

  • Edward Davis | May 16, 2011 5:32 AMReply

    Sure, Malick films generally do need to simmer a bit. But it's a film festival. What, the writer is NOT going to write the review in the 2-3 hrs he has before his next film?

    Does this review seem especially judgemental, reactive and unmeasured? Or is it just not good enough that it's not an A+?

  • GATZ | May 16, 2011 5:31 AMReply

    Correction:

    "While I agree that the idea that this film will alter the medium as we know it (which, by the way, is as unstable as ever) is absurd...

  • GATZ | May 16, 2011 5:29 AMReply

    I think Ken is spot on in his questioning the immediacy of the reactions floating around this here internet. While I agree that the idea that this film will alter the medium as we know it (which, by the way, is as unstable as ever), I do think that works by artists (yes, artists) like Malick ofteen need time to simmer before we unleash our seemingly definitive response.

    Most of my favorite films were, as Ken suggested, ones that I initially struggled with, or whose power initially eluded or confounded me.

    I think that in this age of 'one-clicks' and "FIRSTS!', the idea of publishing a review of a film like "The Tree of Life" is inherently foolish and open to further investigation. We're not all Pauline Kael (thankfully), who notoriuously never reconsidered her original reviews.

  • Tom | May 16, 2011 4:51 AMReply

    Why should they re-evaluate this film? Perhaps it is just not as good as expected...

    Either way, I still want to see this one.

  • Ken | May 16, 2011 3:50 AMReply

    So who wants to make a bet that The Playlist will re-evaluate their B-review by December?

    Honestly, knowing the nature of Malick films, I'll be disappointed if you guys don't attempt to.

    I was underwhelmed by The New World when it came out, but subsequent viewings made its greatness undeniable to me. Felt the same way about Days of Heaven.

  • Film Savior | May 16, 2011 3:28 AMReply

    Honestly, I'm just happy that you got into the screening and got to experience this. I know this has been a long wait for you. No film could live up to the hype that this one was getting. Not fanboy hype, but change the world hype. Glad that expectations are lowered for the rest of us.

  • Neil | May 16, 2011 3:11 AMReply

    Many thinking people believe, for want of a better word, in God. Many of those same thinking people believe in the Bible as a spiritual guide and not as a historical text.

  • Nik | May 16, 2011 3:08 AMReply

    I haven't read this review, especially after I got the sense that a lot from the plot would be revealed (not saying it has "spoilers"). I'm trying to walk into this as blind as possible, but the "B" grade is disappointing.

    Hopefully, on second viewing or after thoughts settle, the rating will rise.

    Can you tell us how it fares next to his other films?

Email Updates