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

Every day, critics and journalists exiting the Palais must fight through throngs of onlookers holding up hopeful hand-drawn signs, begging for invitations to the evening's highly restricted screenings (not that most of us are able to provide them). This morning, as I was leaving the screening of Tree of Life, I saw a young man holding a placard on which he'd scrawled, "I would die for an invitation to Tree of Life." Oh, my dear boy, I certainly hope not.

The Tree of Life is a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption, featuring some absolutely gorgeous photography (courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezski, who also shot The New World). Malick does care about craftsmanship: He's clearly poured thought and care into the images and the editing, and the sections of the film in which characters are actually allowed to interact -- instead of just issuing forth in ponderous voice-overs as images of cosmic tadpoles and Ansel Adams-style calendar shots fill the screen -- manage some degree of dramatic intensity.

But through much of The Tree of Life, 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: "How did she bear it? Mother." "Lord -- why?" Never trust an actor's face to convey complicated feelings when you can just dub in words.

We know at the beginning of The Tree of Life that we're dealing with a family who has suffered tremendous grief. After an opening containing shots of those aforementioned sunflowers and a girl cuddling a goat, we see visual fragments, like bits torn from a scrapbook, of a seemingly once-happy family: There's a mother (Jessica Chastain) twirling about in '50s sundresses; a stern, sensible-looking dad in a wiffle cut (Brad Pitt); and two or three cavorting little boys (it's hard to count them, they're moving so fast) enjoying idyllic 1950s American suburbia.

Which can't be idyllic forever: We learn that one son, one of those little boys (who has since grown into a young man), has died. The family is torn by grief. Mother is wearing 60s-style mourning clothes. Cut ahead, many years later: Sean Penn is working in some giant, slick glass building; it's apparently the anniversary of his brother's death, and you can tell he's sad because he's scowling, but mostly because he tells us so, once again in voice-over.

Here is where Malick takes a breather to ponder the origins of life: It begins, apparently, with a shiny, glowing, translucent pinky-blue light-up mussel floating in black space. Next, there are some bubbles of primordial ooze and some jellyfish. Dinosaurs appear (and they are pretty good dinosaurs, the one thing in Tree of Life that impart a genuine sense of wonder). At the conclusion of this planetarium show, we're returned to '50s Waco, Texas, to learn more about that family.

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  • IB says:

    Pauline Kael, what hath thou wrought?

  • Matt Santos says:

    If you haven't got your head around The New World by now then there's really no hope for you. Funny that you call yourself a film critic.

  • Anne says:

    The film looks like it's a lethargic slideshow set to orchestral music that can almost seem like a story with plot if you squint really, really hard.
    This director needs to learn he's not the Lady of Shalott, and a little dose of reality won't kill him or his artistic vision.

  • Adam Cosco says:

    Cleverly concealed self-absorption?
    Certainly Malick hasn't tried to hide the fact that TREE OF LIFE is semi autobiographical. The film takes the lessons he has learned and tells a cautionary tale of ego versus grace. Does it make an artist self absorbed to draw from his unique experiences and share them with an audience?
    And before you label me as some "dissenter" just defending a film I haven't seen, I would like to say that I HAVE seen the film, twice now, and I really think you are off base to rush to words like "pretension." I didn't see a film that pretended to have any answers, the film was merely in awe of the search for meaning. But what would I expect from a generation of critics that gave KICK ASS a passing grade. The seeds of cynicism are have given birth to dying flowers in this skeptical and sad generation that I am slowly becoming ashamed to be a part of.
    For other films that were booed at cannes, please see TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, L'AVVENTURA, CRASH & PULP FICTION.
    Have a nice day!

  • Rich S. says:

    As soon as I saw the words, "The New World, which probably tops even Tree of Life in the pretentious snoozefest department," it became impossible to take your review or opinion seriously.

  • schmorge says:

    Completely agree. Love Movieline as a website, but this reviewer and I have wildly different opinions on what makes a film "good."Hard to take anything she says seriously.

  • Cameron says:

    Stephanie Zacharek has a point. I watched The New World last night and it doesn't say as much as it could in the time given. However, Malick sets a hell of a precedent. Every artist has a peak. Kubrick's was 2001: A Space Odyssey. He still did incredible work before and after.

  • Fei says:

    You've missed the point in a few different ways.
    "Cleverly concealed self-absorption" doesn't refer to the movie's supposed autobiographical element. It refers to the notion that the filmmaker is out of touch with certain important things, which can be a very subjective judgment.
    Although I personally don't like the word "pretentious" in reviews, do you know what it means? It certainly doesn't mean "pretending to have answers."
    What does Kick Ass have to do with anything?
    Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me has always had a poor reputation among non-fans of Twin Peaks, and even among many fans. Crash is primarily appreciated by those with very middle-brow and unrefined tastes. Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or and has always been one of the most well-liked Cannes contenders of all time. Most movies get booed at Cannes, because audience rowdiness is tolerated there. Zacharek didn't even make a big deal out of the booing. So your point is rather pointless. You're awfully egotistical to assume that everyone else agrees with you and thinks like you do.

  • qwiggles says:

    "But strong visuals don’t necessarily equal strong visual storytelling."
    I'm no Malick apologist and certainly not of the "you need 12 days to process this delicate tone poem" straw man variety you toss out in preemptive self-defense at the end of this piece. But you said this exact sentence in your talk with Xan Brooks about the film prior to seeing it. The only thing more banal than the Malick faithful who see his oeuvre as one long missive from God are those who gripe that his films are all pointless voiceover and fetishized blades of grass. Check, check. You should have just written a review of the trailer months ago and spared yourself the dinosaurs.

  • Why must everything be so binary? E.g. "This is banal, but this is more banal." After _New World_ in particular, I'd at least count myself among the Malick faithful who see his oeuvre as one long missive from God that _also_ happens to be loaded with pointless voiceover and fetishized blades of grass. Honestly, If he hadn't made this work as well as he did with the source material and characters of _The Thin Red Line_, I don't think you'd see so many frustrated expectations from this initial wave of _TOL_ viewers.

  • Allan says:

    I feel that the reviewer does not trust her own review. Why the preemptive self-defense of the piece at the end of the review? Can the review not stand on its own?

  • qwiggles says:

    I don't know that there's an either/or statement in "both of these things are at the threshold of banality, one more so." I also don't think you'd find the voiceover pointless or the blades of grass fetishized if you were "faithful" in the near-religious sense I meant. And many are. I also find curious the suggestion that The Thin Red Line is atypical of Malick's aesthetic: plenty of dreamy reveries in the grass and dainty red-heads twirling in sun-dresses there too, and not a whole lot of linear narrative progression. Like Tree seems to, it also unfolds in movements.
    In any case, my comment stands: portions of this review were written before the film was even screened. The result is that this is as much a review of people who like Malick's films than of The Tree of Life, so I feel my attention to the grass and voiceover critique (which also makes an appearance in SZ's video chat with the Guardian) is appropriate.

  • Fernando Lino says:

    Please, you should seriously consider to find your vocation here on planet earth and quit your job. It isn't the fact that you didn't like this movie that worries me but the arguments that you use...
    Reading your review I feel like you started watching movies last year or two years ago and you have no idea of what you're talking about...
    Have you ever seen Bergman? Kurosawa? Fellini?
    The way you talk about the Dardenne brothers and European cinema is frightening. All you see is a very basic and naive way of cinematic structure and you depart from that very, almost inexistant, fragile foundations in your cinematic vocabulary to pass judgement.

  • Eren Odabasi says:

    I cannot understand why one cannot take an opinion seriously if it does not agree with his or can dismiss a critic if she is not too fond of a single film (like The New World). As long as it is well-explained, every opinion is valuable and this is definitely the case here.
    Stephanie has given a detailed and honest account of her experience very quickly and under hectic conditions. And considering the other reviews on this film, she's not the only one who thinks it had some problems despite certain merits. We know that Stephanie is perfectly objective and open-minded on non-narrative films or films that can people can call pretensious. (You may check her reviews on Uncle Boonmee and Somewhere just to see her raves on such titles). She obviously is not predejuiced.

  • Eren Odabasi says:

    Which part of this review makes you think she has not seen anything by Bergman? You may or may not agree with her but how can you judge her like that and even ask her to leave her job?
    I'm really baffled by some of the reactions here. You seem to have a very strict idea about which films a critic should like.

  • This is what I mean: For some reason -- and I've read this a multitude of times in other _TOL_ comments threads on this site -- I'm not permitted to be faithful AND think Malick occasionally overindulgent or even capable of mistakes. The hardest part of faith is believing even when confronted with reason to doubt.
    That's what made _New World_ so vexing to me after _TRL_, which does indeed establish the linear progressions of such characters as Bell (the soldier for whom cuckholdry finishes the job on his humanity that war never could; the narration is ingeniously woven into their correspondence, and thus made personal, purposeful _and_ philosophical) or Tall (the older officer in the throes of self-doubt and existential crisis; Staros's rejecting his orders on the suicide mission confirms the futility on which Tall has privately ruminated in monologues). Malick also brilliantly works Witt from the outside in: His progression from going AWOL to rejoining C Company to confronting death at enemy hands is anchored in those meditations he delivers throughout. Just by virtue of having Jones's novel to work from, there's an editorial advantage at the very least.
    I didn't expect _TNW_ to follow this exact pattern or anything, but I was surprised how incompatible the reveries and visuals and narration were with anything resembling a story or character. As opposed, that is, to the compatibility of narrative and impressionism I'd sensed as a viewer of the three films prior, and especially _TRL_, which I consider Malick's masterpiece.
    Anyway, speaking for myself, none of this is personal. The films provide enough to go on when discussing Malick. I don't need to invoke a "cult" (as Hoberman did today) or cast aspersions on fellow moviegoers when the evidence and rationale for my joy or distaste are plainly on the screen. We'll see about TOL; I'm just relieved to get through the marketing phase and into the actual movie at last.

  • Tim says:

    If a movie makes a show of having answers to big questions that it does really have - I would say it was putting on a pretense and therefore pretentious.

  • twig says:

    which 'Crash' do you mean? There can be only one. The Cronenberg one, not the other one.
    This review only makes me want to see Tree of Life more.

  • gs says:

    Malick graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. He has a published book on Heidegger. Zacherek disagrees with Malick philosophically. She always complains that Malick doesn't give much priority to the actors/characters. Duh. That's Malick's point. He trying to point out how small humans are against the backdrop of nature. It wouldn't be a Malick film if he did focus on the actors.

  • Julie Andrews says:

    Exactly. She is dead. You can let go now.

  • JBam says:

    I haven't seen the movie, but think the review is great. TNW is both beautiful, as well as a a totaly snoozefest and a half--like a (rather boring) wolf in sheep's clothing.
    And I find Malick's v.o.'s a blatant admission that he's limited in his filmmaking--sure, his films look pretty, but this might be the third one that makes them "all the same." Too much v.o. is a cheap shot: the point about not connecting with the actors' eyes seems, in advance, very well intended.
    It's also really unfair to castigate the critic when no one has seen the movie. Just cause TM is trying to tackle issues of spirit and soul, very different from mainstream Hollywood, that doesn't mean his movies hit the home run-- does anyone EVER refer to "Thin Red Line," or "New World," as classics, as they do "Badlands," or "Days of Heaven"? They don't. 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.

  • Chris says:

    Oh yes it does. Zacharek is simply too much of a Kael worshipper to see it.
    I haven't seen Tree of Life, so I'll withhold judgment, but Zacharek's review of The New World was way off base - it was nothing but an ax in search of something to grind.

  • Chris says:

    I don't know about Tree of Life - maybe it's great, maybe it's terrible - but I don't know what to tell you if you seriously thought The New World was lacking in story or character. When I finally saw it, it wasn't nearly as non-linear or lacking in traditional story elements as I'd been led to believe. You're entitled to your opinion, but I don't understand why anyone would find TNW any more "vexing" or baffling than, say, Ingmar Bergman's Persona or Antonioni's L'Avventura. TNW was experimental, sure, but it didn't depart THAT much from narrative norms and conventions. No more than any major filmmaker establishes his/her own idiosyncratic language.
    Maybe she's right about this new movie, I don't know, but I thought Zacharek's review of The New World was remarkably nitpicking and ungenerous: it was mostly just cheap jokes and one-liners at Malick's expense. That someone can be seriously flawed and STILL a genuinely great artist seems to escape Zacharek - America's greatest poet (other than Emily Dickinson) is Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass contains its share of vaporous soul-talk as well as genuinely great verse. Leaves of Grass is BOTH a masterpiece and ALSO a book with its share of verbose padding and stuffing. Of course, the Zachareks (and Kaels) of Whitman's day wouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt either, and pounced on his weaknesses and lapses, which truly ARE there - Whitman's contemporary detractors definitely weren't WRONG to see the lapses they saw. But you can nit-pick just about anything to death if you're determined to - especially when the artist is one, like Malick and Whitman, whose work contains its share of ruts, dead-ends, and blind alleys. But The New World also contained its share of genuine originality and brilliance - and this Zacharek failed to note.
    And if you need proof that much more is going on the film than what Zacharek and like-minded detractors thought, read this (pay attention to the rebuttal to Stephen Hunter, third last paragraph):
    Now read this:
    And this reply (note the poster's astute observation about the "female attendant" and how there are no bad people in the movie, only bad actions inspired by limited and limiting ideologies):
    If you really think about the implications of the last link in particular, you start to see what TNW is really about - what Malick is really saying about the human condition. And what he's saying is anything but vapid or vaporous (even though he has those moments as well - but, again, so did Whitman).

  • Chris says:

    One more thing: this last line by Zacharek,
    "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!"
    is nothing but shallow, duplicitous, self-serving sophistry. There are plenty of detailed, scene-specific, in-depth close readings of The New World out there. Zacharek likes to PRETEND that fans of TNW had nothing to offer but vague, inchoate pleas of "You just don't get it! Tone poem! Tone poem! Tone poem!" But, in actual fact, some of the defenses of the movie were much, much more concrete, precise, and specific than that (like the three statements, by three different individuals, I linked to above).
    Zacharek needs to PRETEND to herself and her readers that Malick's admirers have no clear idea why they like what they like. But the very existence of pieces like Pinkerton's, and the astute comment by Brad Stephens, prove Zacharek's implication to be just plain false. It will not do for Zacharek to continue to cling to the "it's a tone poem, don't you get it?" fantasy. Yes, such viewers exist, but so do viewers like Pinkerton and Stephens (and myself) who know EXACTLY what we liked about the movie, and can defend it in precise, specific terms. That Zacharek has chosen to consciously avoid reading and pondering any of the detailed analyses and interpretations of TNW that now exist doesn't mean that such analyses aren't there to be found, if one wants to seek them out. Zacharek simply doesn't WANT to find them, since that might mean she'd have to acknowledge that there are OBJECTIVE merits and virtues to the film that she OBJECTIVELY failed to see. Zacharek admit she's wrong about anything at all? Never!

  • Chris says:

    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.
    The principle of charity is a basic principle in any sort of arts criticism. If you want to argue that it's "the emperor's new clothes" with Malick, then you're obligated to actually READ, ASBORB, ADDRESS, and attempt to REBUT some of the close readings/analyses/interpretations of his work which argue otherwise. Or else you're simply burying your head in the sand and refusing to even CONSIDER, to even acquaint yourself with alternate readings.
    Zacharek is a film critic, therefore if she wants to continue to disparage Malick, she owes it to Malick's admirers to familiarize herself with the case for Malick as expressed in its strongest form. This she adamantly refuses to do; instead, she simply zeroes in on the "tone poem! tone poem!' chanters, mocks them, and avoids altogether even mentioning Malick's more intellecutally rigorous defenders.
    Therefore, her opinion is worthless, since it's based ENTIRELY on a blanket refusal to even READ, to even ENCOUNTER the opposing viewpoint. If you only address oppossing viewpoints in their weakest form, never their strongest form, then your reviews lack the principle of charity, consequently lack validity. The case for Malick has been made in much stronger, more explicit, more eloquent form than either you or Zacharek are willing to admit.