It is the film Terrence Malick has reportedly been working on for almost four decades, the first movie of his to hit the big screen since 2005, the buzziest of all the buzzy projects opening at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival .
After all the waiting and all the hype, “The Tree of Life,” premiered early Monday morning (May 16) at Cannes, and reviews have begun pouring in. Perhaps inevitably at this point, they have been mixed. Some critics have piled rapturous praise on the film and its director, acknowledging its challenging nature even as they celebrate it. Others, however, have dubbed “The Tree of Life” a pretentious work, with Malick more attuned to presenting beautiful imagery than developing believable characters.
The end of Monday’s screening reportedly was met with boos from the audience, a negative reaction that was soon drowned out by festivalgoers more taken in by what they’d just seen. The movie, if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, is polarizing. It’s also difficult to summarize. The plot, such as it exists, begins with a father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) raising their family in 1950s Texas. One of their sons eventually dies, while another grows up to become a sad-faced man played by Sean Penn. Before flashing back to the midcentury storyline, the film takes a hallucinatory trip into the creation of the world, complete with wild astral projections and a journey down an evolutionary road, from the rise of jellyfish to dinosaurs and beyond.
A summer blockbuster, this one ain’t. Here’s what the critics have to say about it.
” ’The Tree of Life’ is shaped in an unconventional way, not as a narrative with normal character arcs and dramatic tension but more like a symphony with several movements each expressive of its own natural phenomena and moods. Arguably, music plays a much more important role here than do words — there is some voice-over but scarcely any dialogue at all for nearly an hour, whereas the soaring, sometimes grandiose soundtrack, comprised of 35 mostly classical excerpts drawn from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Holst, Respighi, Gorecki and others, in addition to the contributions of Alexandre Desplat, dominates in the way it often did in Stanley Kubrick’s work. ” — Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
” ’The Tree of Life’ is a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption, featuring some absolutely gorgeous photography … Malick, characteristically, doesn’t seem to care much for people at all. Desert rock formations, rushing streams, sunflowers waving gently in the sun, and all sorts of cradle-of-life folderol are the things that really rock his world — he cuts to them whenever he needs to try to explain the inexplicable, which is often. This is a movie about spiritual searching, about reckoning with the nature of God and his frustrating insistence on allowing suffering in the world. We know that because the movie’s characters tell us what they’re thinking, repeatedly, in voice-over.” — Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline
“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.” — Sukhdev Sandhu, The Telegraph
“Terrence Malick’s mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship: It’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 … This film is not for everyone, and 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.” — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
The Final Word
“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. The iconoclastic director’s long-awaited fifth feature is in many ways his simplest yet most challenging work, a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy’s 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth’s origins. Result is pure-grade art cinema destined primarily for the delectation of Malick partisans and adventurous arthouse-goers, but with its cast names and see-it-to-believe-it stature, this inescapably divisive picture could captivate the zeitgeist for a spell.” — Justin Chang, Variety
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Tree of Life.”
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