I heard a woman leaving the screening of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life say, "I want to read the reviews on this." That's what critics are for--to help moviegoers understand a complex work like this one. Here is my coverage, a round-up of others is below.
Manohla Dargis, NYTimes:
"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."
Yada Yuan, NYMagazine:
"there will be other people warning you not to waste your time. Those people are wrong. This is a film that actually manages to be about all of life: the triumphs, the tragedies, the tiniest moments, the mistakes that define us and therefore must be embraced. 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."
J. Hoberman, Village Voice:
"The Tree of Life has plenty of incident but, despite Pitt's memorably bullying performance, very little human interest. (The best bit has a bunch of boys launching a frog in a bottle rocket.) Malick's craftsmanship may be everywhere evident but, however flashy and intermittently beautiful, his filmmaking can be shockingly banal."
Justin Chang, Variety:
"Few American filmmakers are as alive to the splendor of the natural world as Terrence Malick, but even by his standards, "The Tree of Life" represents something extraordinary."
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon:
"a massively ambitious work of allegorical and almost experimental cinema that seeks to recapture the lived experience of a 1950s family, after the fashion of a Texas Proust, and connect it to the life of the universe, the nature and/or existence of God, the evolution of life on earth and even the microscopic chemistry and biology of life."
Todd McCarthy, THR:
"working in a manner diametrically opposed to that of theater dramatists inclined to spell everything out, Malick opens cracks and wounds by inflection, indirection and implication."
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:
"this is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that's thinking big. Malick makes an awful lot of other film-makers look timid and negligible by comparison."
Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline:
"The Tree of Life is a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption, featuring some absolutely gorgeous photography…But strong visuals don’t necessarily equal strong visual storytelling."
Eric Kohn, indieWIRE:
"Tree of Life represents the greatest expression of heady Malickian concepts, which usually involve humanity adrift in the chaos of the universe and the meaning of everything (or lack thereof)…Few other filmmakers can work on this scale without some compromises, but Malick manages to deviate from his cross-generational family drama with cosmically endowed CGI visuals recounting the beginning and end of time. The movie’s very existence means he got away with it, even if audiences expecting something familiar throw up their hands. Others (myself included) will find Malick’s spectacular vision as mesmerizing and provocative as he undoubtedly intends."
Scott Foundas, FilmLink:
"If we are, as Woody Allen recently suggested (and Nietzsche a century before), no more than 'specks of light in an eternal void,' in Tree of Life you feel Malick grasping at those flickering particles, turning them to and fro, examining their elemental structure. You don’t watch this movie so much as you surrender to it."