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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  • 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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