Cannes 2011 Review: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

It feels like a millennium has passed since it was announced that Terrence Malick – aka The Man Who Won’t Be Rushed – would be next turning his hand to The Tree of Life, which landed at Cannes this morning to shed light on its most infuriatingly purblind synopsis, and a mysterious trailer that didn’t exactly clear things up. Would Malick be able to live up to the increasingly stifling expectations heaped on him by his infamously ponderous post-production technique? Could the film recapture the director’s incredible eye for composition and visuals, or would we be treated to another mess of in-determination, whose quality of substance wildly misses that of its aesthetic, as some have come to predict?

Flicking through the accompanying press pack, it is striking to note how much those involved in the film’s production seem to insist on its deep, universally appropriate meaning, and the fact that the film should be judged not as something conventional cinematic, but rather as a unique and visceral experience, infinite in scope, organic, which transcends words and definition. If the alarm bells hadn’t already been ringing, the bell-ringer would surely have collapsed with exhaustion at this point.

And wouldn’t you know it, almost every concern I had was realized in spectacular fashion. Beyond re-affirming himself as an auteur with The Tree of Life, Malick has instead simply offered an over long exercise in filmic masturbation. Given his attraction to producing visceral, visually astounding films, it was only a matter of time before the director went to the extreme and presented something that values how it looks, and its self-important message over engaging the audience. What results is an alienating experience, that is still hugely impressive to look at, but inspires more head-scratching and detached admiration than actual enjoyment.

One of the problems for The Tree of Life is that it is too knowingly obtuse: the obvious idea of the film is that the we share in the O’Brien’s quest to unravel meaning in their lives through an evaluation of themselves, their relationships and their relation to nature and the grander canvas of the universe, but without a sufficient guiding influence, it becomes far too easy to simply drift along through the images Malick has so painstakingly compiled without being able to relate to or engage with his premise. For the majority of The Tree of Life, Malick is less a film-maker than a magpie of spectacular images, which are in themselves very impressive (and will no doubt form the basis of all the positive reviews it gets), but they are so disjointed and alien. Add to that the fact that these scenes are revealed in a almost picture-book form, where vignette follows vignette without a tether to the underlying story and it is nigh impossible to discern whether Malick is seeking to define the O’Briens (and human existence) in terms of their relation to these optical wonders or is simply attempting to create something consciously atypical to jar his audience into a response. Perhaps it is both, but the cold, clinical precision of the scenes lends itself only to detachment, and when the revelation finally comes that this is one of the ways that the adult Jack O’Brien discovers the meaning of life, it inspires nothing much more than acknowledgment.

To a certain extent you have to commend Malick for his bravery in producing a film that so strongly features these extra-narrative spectacles, and the technical prowess behind them is unreal, since they were made up of only about 15% CGI. And I’m sure in my capacity as a film journalist, I’m supposed to get rabidly excited by them, but I am chiefly a film fan, and if you’re like me there’s not much in the scenes for you apart from a few “ooooo”s in between the various “eh?”s.

The mid-section of the film, in which the O’Brien’s 1950s life is recounted is just as gorgeous as the visuals of the Earth beginning, but here there is far more to latch on to in terms of engagement. This is essentially the substance of the film: a portrait of family life seen through the eyes of a child (Jack O’Brien played by Hunter McCracken), whose world is shattered by his sudden loss of innocence, and his struggles to understand his father’s angry treatment of himself and his brothers. Had the film been a simple focus on this situation, and the quest to unveil meaning through association with nature, issues of the spirit and love and one man’s position in the vastness of our universe been more subtly alluded to through more conventional filmic techniques, then the film itself may have been more successful. As it is, and as stunning as they are, the astronomical and evolutionary scenes are too labored, too blatant and too insistent that they cloud the meaning rather than add to it – they are the personification of aesthetic babble, beautiful white noise that ultimately detracts from the experience of the film rather than defining that experience.

Brad Pitt is excellent as the O’Brien father, and this is a performance that we certainly haven’t seen from him before, and while his character is certainly at fault for his anger, there is enough of a tragedy revealed in his situation to ensure he never slips into being a trite villain. Relative newcomer Jessica Chastain is also very impressive as his chaste, and near silent wife, though her characterization is somewhat more problematic – she is supposed to be an angel of humanity, in touch with her loving side and thus supposedly more in touch with the essence of being, but it is an added level to the character that almost threatens to derail its humanity.

Finally, I’ll pose a question: are we supposed to value films for their experiential legacy, and for some technical prowess, even if they feel somewhat empty and insistent? Or should the distinct pleasure of film be in its engagement, and its ability to entertain? The Tree of Life is one of these things, and your reception of it will depend entirely on which of those definitions of film you subscribe to.

The Upside: Pitt, Chastaine and McCracken’s performances are great, and the score is exceptional. And of course, the aesthetic merits of the film could never have been in doubt, and don’t disappoint.

The Downside: Aiming for an “experience” is one thing, but presenting an intentionally obtuse, impenetrable thing like this is something else entirely.

Incidentally, immediately after this two and a half hour endurance, I took my place in the Salle Debussy screen to watch Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan, a decision I instantly regretted, and rather than endure a further 80 minutes, I walked out after half an hour. The film up to that point had been a pointless and pretentious exercise, that I can safely say will inspire no pleasure in even the most hardy of critics. Maybe it was because Tree of Life had sapped any strength of will out of me, but I cannot see the value in putting myself through such an experience, and it baffles me to think that its inclusion in Un Certain Regard means that someone somewhere deemed it “worth a view”. I can only assume that there is some impish behaviour going on among selectors, who purposefully include films like this to test the resolution of attending audiences, and needless to say, no full review will appear.

Remember to follow me on Twitter for more on-site observations. You can also check out my other filmic writings at

Cannes coverage continues…

Born to the mean streets of Newcastle, England the same year that BMX Bandits was cruelly over-looked for the Best Film Oscar, Simon Gallagher's obsessive love of all things cinema blossomed during that one summer in which he watched Clueless every day for six weeks. This is not a joke. Eventually able to wean himself off that particular dirty habit, and encouraged by the revelation that was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he then spent many years reviewing films on the underground scene, throwing away thousands of pounds on a Masters Degree in English in the process, before landing feet-first at the doors of British movie site, where you can catch his blend of rapier wit and morbid sardony on a daily basis. Simon is also a hopeless collector of film paraphenalia, and counts his complete Star Wars Mr. Potato Heads collection among his friends.

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