CANNES REVIEW: Tree of Life Is All About Life; But Does Malick Care Much for People?


Dad is tough on the boys, schooling them in proper table manners he doesn't observe himself and rousing them early on Sundays so they can all head to church where he, formerly an aspiring musician and now some sort of inventor, plays the organ. Mom is the one who looks on in silence, protecting the boys when she can, occasionally dipping a toe into the family sprinkler to rinse bits of cut grass from her bare feet (because the water spurting forth from that sprinkler sure looks good in the sunlight).

Malick is at his best when he lets his guard down, which is rarely -- there's nothing casual about him as a director. But in this section of the movie, Malick (who both wrote and directed) does manage here and there to set aside his highly attuned aesthetics enough to capture some of the texture of family life, particularly as it was in the '50s. In one sequence a DDT truck breezes down the street with little boys following behind, jumping up and down gleefully in the puffy clouds of white smoke it leaves in its wake. At one point the older boy (the characters don't call one another by name, but his name is Jack -- he's the one who'll grow up to be Sean Penn, and he's played, with sure-footed serious-mindedness, by Hunter McCracken) betrays the trust of his younger brother (Laramie Eppler) by injuring him slightly with an airgun. Later, he attempts an apology by kissing his brother's hurt arm. The brother makes a big show of brushing the kisses away, but the two eventually reach the kind of uneasy, unbreakable truce that sometimes interlaces siblings for life. It's the movie's finest moment.

There's also a third brother who's mystically absent through most of the movie, maybe because he's not the protagonist nor does he die. Some kids have all the luck. But then, The Tree of Life isn't really about people as much as it's about "life" in some broad, waving-of-the-arms sense. There certainly is a lot of filmmaking going on here: Malick grabs our attention with diminutive jump cuts; he often shoots characters in three-quarters profile, so we're left to wonder what their faces might be saying; he invents dream images (like a slightly airborne Chastain pirouetting among the trees) and inserts them in unexpected places. There's also lots of majestic orchestral music, courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, Bach and, presumably, God.

And then there are those visuals: A father fondling his newborn babe's translucent toes. Dreamy, idyllic suburban '50s streets that look as if they've been shot not with the most technically advanced movie camera money can buy but with something better, the Brownie camera of memory. Those sunflowers, standing bright and hopeful. Lubezski knows how to do it, all right.

But Lubezski -- as he's shown in Children of Men, Great Expectations, Sleepy Hollow, and any number of extraordinary-looking films that he's worked on -- knows how to do other things, too. Like shoot a scene so that the emotions of the characters are more compelling than their surroundings, no matter how beautiful those surroundings may be. It puzzles me that people think of Malick as a strong visual filmmaker. His movies are often gorgeous-looking -- that was true even of The New World, which probably tops even Tree of Life in the pretentious snoozefest department.

But strong visuals don't necessarily equal strong visual storytelling. If Malick could tell a story mostly with pictures -- and faces -- why would he need so many voice-overs? There are some good performances here, to the extent that Malick allows us to focus on them: Pitt, in particular, captures the essence of preoccupied dadness. As he schools his boys in the art of respecting the line dividing their property from a neighbor's, or takes them all out to eat at a local diner, he's both distanced and affectionate in the way many of us may remember our own dads to have been. Chastain has less latitude: She's cast in the role of beatific mom-symbol, and it constrains her.

I can already hear the chorus of dissenters: But you just don't understand! Tree of Life a tone poem made by a genius! You need to see it again, or at least think about it a lot more! Admittedly, in this particular case, deadline constraints demanded some pretty rapid processing. But I don't think I'd find much more beneath the surface of Tree of Life if I thought about it for 12 more hours or 12 more days. Malick is doing what lots of directors do as they get older and ponder larger issues. I'm sympathetic, at least, to his intent. But he's trying to answer big questions by making the biggest movie possible. Where is God when you need him? The one place he forgets to look is in his characters' eyes.

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  • Nate says:

    Screw you, you stuck up prick critic. You don't deserve to see this film,let alone write about it.

  • Chris says:

    Maybe, Erin, the fact that she reserves her highest praise for trash and pulp? Don't take statements so literally: this poster knows she's seen Bergman, but he also knows she hates being challenged and is a lifelong addict of cinematic fast food.
    Ironically, Zacharek suggests Malick doesn't "care much for people," but she evidently had no problem with another Brad Pitt starrer, Mr and Mrs Smith, which she raved about, even though there didn't seem to be much affection for humanity to be found in that gratuitously violent and nasty piece of trash. As long as a movie is fast-paced, pseudo-sexy, and zips right along, it can be as anti-human and inhumane as it wants to be, in Zacharek's eyes. (Angelina Jolie's presence is also always a bonus for Stephanie.)

  • Timothy says:

    "does anyone EVER refer to "Thin Red Line," or "New World," as classics, as they do "Badlands," or "Days of Heaven"?"
    Well, yes. Mind you, "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World" haven't had as much time to obtain "classic" status, but there most certainly are a number of critics who have labeled them among the best films of the last 20 years ("The New World" ranked very highly on a number of the "decade greatest" lists that came out in the last few years.)
    So yes, both have received a very good share of acclaim and analysis, with many critics calling them modern classics.
    Glad you asked.
    "It's a bit of the emperor's new clothes with Malick, and I'm glad this critic has been honest about what she's seen."
    Ahh, yes. The emperor's clothes - what you mean to say is that everyone secretly thinks like you but they're all too afraid to admit it. All of those intelligent, thoughtful, and thorough analyses about "The New World" and "The Thin Red Line" are simply obfuscation. The critics' don't really like the films, they just want to look cool to all their hipster friends.
    Zacharek's snide, dismissive review, on the other hand, is sheer honesty. And we know it's honest because it agrees with your opinion.

  • Chris says:

    Yes, Timothy, I agree whole-heartedly with your excellent post, and I'd like to elaborate a bit if you don't mind.
    I firmly believe in the principle of "de gustibus." You like what you like, you dislike what you dislike. However, the intrinsic merits of a work of art are not entirely synchronous with our own personal quirks and biases. For instance, I grew up listening to moody 70s/80s/90s-era pop/rock, and also the classical music in its Romantic and post-Romantic phase: Beethoven's 5th, Tchaikovsky, Debussy's La Mer, Ravel's Daphnis & Chloe and Bolero, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody etc. etc. Which means nowadays it's hard for me to respond to Bach, Monteverdi, Haydn, Handel, country music, Frank Sinatra, or the Beach Boys with anything like the same degree of enthusiasm. Baroque musical masterpieces cannot touch me as deeply as "romantic" music, even mediocre products of Romanticism. My sensibiilty is shaped by Tchaikovsky, not Bach - and Pink Floyd, not Nat King Cole.
    Debussy's La Mer, consequently, will always mean more to me than Bach's Goldberg Variations. However, that doesn't make Debussy "innately" brilliant and Bach "innately" bad. As a listener, I can recognize real and objective merits to works of art that don't always deeply engage my own idiosyncratic emotions. I'm not stupid, foolish, or arrogant enough to believe that people who love Bach and feel deeply moved by his music, more deeply engaged than by Debussy's, are somehow "wrong" and I - I alone - am "right" to feel what I feel. My emotional preferences are the product of the accidental circumstances of my life history and early listening experiences.
    Zacharek, on the other hand, preeningly prides herself on her "truthfulness" and "honesty," mistaking her perpetually adolescent narcissism and all-encompassing solipsism for courage and integrity. To snidely dismiss all Malick admirers as "tone poem! tone poem! tone poem!' chanting airy-fairy airheads - without taking a single second to read and ruminate over the best analyses and interpretive essays that have been written on Malick's work - is to confuse obnoxiousness and arrogance with honesty and integrity. Zacharek believes that being subjective to the point of capriciousness - treating all of Malick as garbage while also writing rave reviews for Zac Efron's 17 Again and Angie Jolie's Salt - is a trait to be admired. By her logic, if I wrote a music review declaring Bach's Cello Suites a "boring snoozefest," while also hailing Hall & Oates "Crash! Boom! Bang!" an exhilarating masterpiece, I'm just "being honest" and "telling it like it is," because "the emperor's new clothes" need exposing by a gutsy, fearless truthteller like MEEEEEEE.......!!!!!!!

  • juvserr says:

    wonderfully stated chris; you'd do an infinitely better job of critiquing films than this clown.

  • Ruby says:

    I found this film incredibly tedious. I didn't relate to the characters at all, and although visually pleasing. it was very boring and drawn out. It would have been fine if it went for an hour, not 2.5 hours.

  • Trace says:

    "Ironically, Zacharek suggests Malick doesn't "care much for people," but she evidently had no problem with another Brad Pitt starrer, Mr and Mrs Smith, which she raved about, even though there didn't seem to be much affection for humanity to be found in that gratuitously violent and nasty piece of trash."
    Yes, how ironic that she would judge a movie by its own terms rather than by the terms you set. It's foolish to expect a movie about assassins to show affection for humanity. However, it would be expected of a movie about regular peopl dealing with everyday emotions and has a title of "The Tree of Life". She expected more affection for humanity in this film about everyday people than she did in a movie about professional killers (not everday people). What's with your apples and oranges?

  • Trace says:

    "By her logic, if I wrote a music review declaring Bach's Cello Suites a "boring snoozefest," while also hailing Hall & Oates "Crash! Boom! Bang!" an exhilarating masterpiece, I'm just "being honest" and "telling it like it is," because "the emperor's new clothes" need exposing by a gutsy, fearless truthteller like MEEEEEEE.......!!!!!!! "
    So what you're saying is that Bach is objectively far more interesting than Hall and Oates? As a music student forced to learn Bach's basic theory principles, I sincerly beg to differ. Sometimes, hell even most of the time, the pulp is better than the "high-art".

  • Trace says:

    "That someone can be seriously flawed and STILL a genuinely great artist seems to escape Zacharek "
    Her opinions of Tarantino and Micheal Winterbottom seem to indicate otherwise. Has it ever occured to you that you, Nick Pinkerton, and two commentors on Yahoo! are giving Malick far more credit than he perhaps deserves?
    "But The New World also contained its share of genuine originality and brilliance - and this Zacharek failed to note."
    None of your links make a case for its originality. And brilliance is highly subjective. Maybe Zachereck failed to noted it because it wasn't there to be noted.

  • Chris says:

    Sometimes, hell even most of the time, the pulp is better than the "high-art".
    Thank you, Trace. You've just revealed why you find Zacharek so invigorating: you, like Zacharek, believe (wrongly) "pulp is usually better than 'high art'."
    You provide not a shred of evidence for this assertion, of course (since none exists); and it's a very lazy, fashionable form of thinking of our cultural moment that takes absolutely zero courage to subscribe to (despite Zacharek's inane belief that she's some daringly rebellious truthteller, when in actual fact nothing could possibly be less daring or more conformist than the smug stances she adopts).
    The thing you have no explanation for, of course, is why "high art" continues to speak to people centuries after its creation, while the supposedly superior "pulp" you revel in almost always has a short shelf-life.
    The other thing you fail to explain is why - not so much with music, but with the other arts - the "high art" you disparage continues to inspire rich and interesting commentary/analysis over time, while "pulp" doesn't. Or maybe you're clueless enough to believe the fashionable nonsense that Shakespeare and Homer and Duke Ellington created "pulp" simply because what they created was popular? "Pulp" and "popular" should not be used as interchangeable synonyms.
    A great piece of art can be popular, of course, but it isn't inevitably so (especially in eras and periods of cultural decline, like ours). The lazy big lie that Zacharek subscribes to, of course, is that because Shakespeare was popular art and also great art, a popular movie like Salt must be great art too - "Shakespeare was popular and famous, Angelina Jolie is also popular and famous, therefore Angelina is just like Shakespeare!" Uh.... no. Wrong. Don't ask me to connect the dots as the logical fallacies here should be glaringly obvious. (And Jolie, DePalma, and Zacharek's other "trashy" pet favorites aren't even all that popular.)
    As a music student forced to learn Bach's basic theory principles, I sincerely beg to differ.
    You may have been a music student, but you obviously weren't a very good one if you sincerely believe Bach is a lesser composer than Daryl Hall. And I like Daryl Hall. Daryl Hall wouldn't even agree with you on this one.

  • Chris says:

    By your logic, Trace, if a contemporary book reviewer had reviewed the first edition of Mein Kampf, it would be right and proper to overlook or excuse Hitler's naked misanthropy, since after all, he's not writing some "humanitarian" book, is he! Why judge him by some abstract standard rather than what his intentions were? Why dock merit points from an entry in the "torture porn" movie genre - after all, it's unreasonable to expect affection for humanity from a splatter-fest, so why berate a director of such grisly entertainments?
    Your stance is so stupid and poorly thought through, Trace, it doesn't even merit consideration. By your logic, nobody could EVER be chided for a cold, heartless outlook as long as they were making a thriller, a violent actioner, or a horror flick! You're giving them a universal alibi for nastiness.
    Beyond that, Zacharek provides zero evidence of lack of affection for humanity on Malick's part. For a parallel, read Woolf's To The Lighthouse and the part where a young man's death by exploding landmine is juxtaposed with the slow rhythms of nature and change of seasons. This is not misanthropy on Virginia Woolf's part, but by Zacharek's reading, it would have to be considered so.

  • Craig says:

    The pretension wasnt in the subject matter but in the way he presented it. Malick is a pretentious filmmaker and everybody knows that so it is fine. But having people stand there and act the way they do is not how people acted in the 50's.. or ever. Poetry in filmmaking is pretentious and it doesnt benefit the viewer, everybody just calls it genius because malick created this style of filmmaking. Malick is the most pretentious filmmaker to ever live, with that being sad i dont dislike his work. Badlands was amazing, however, Tree of Life would have been one of the best films of the year if it had a strong narrative and not people saying stupid fucking lines that are unrelatable because noone says that shit. If you like poetry go read it, i dont want to hear it for 3 fucking hours in a movie

  • sweetvalleyguy says:

    Nice review and spot on in my opinion. I go into every film looking for the best in it and give every filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. And I will say that the performance by the kid was fantastic!
    But sweet Jesus, thank god Tree of Life eventually finished. I felt like I would be watching Terrance Malick's brave, challenging and visually spectacular snoozefest for all eternity.
    However, the appearance of symbolic theater masks, meaningful white doves and laughing clowns made me realize I was in the presence of Art. As such, uncontrollable giggling helped me get through this insufferable thing.

  • Chris says:

    Stephanie Zacharek hit the nail right on the head with this review. Insufferably pretentious snoozefest is exactly right.
    Some have compared this movie to 2001 but there is no real comparison. 2001 had a story and the cool visuals were justified by and made sense in light of the story. Tree of Life has no story and, as someone said upthread, it is essentially a slowmoving slideshow with a soundtrack.
    And as SweetValleyGuy says, the symbolic theater mask was just laughably pathetic. But I have to admit it worked perfectly as a symbol -- of the movies's unearned excess and preposterous ridiculousness.

  • Maureen says:

    This movie was an excuse to showoff beautiful camera & photography work. I see it received one star on Netflex, I would give it less than that.

    • Karin says:

      I thought this movie was incredibly beautiful and left me thinking about it for days. It's not a movie for everyone and that's fine. Why can't we leave it at that?

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