Even in Victory at Cannes, 'The Tree of Life' Polarizes

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Is director Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life a deeply-felt spiritual experience, or pretentious, dinosaur-heavy gobbledygook? For nearly two weeks, the question polarized attendees at this year's Cannes film festival. Even the nine-member Cannes jury, which yesterday awarded Malick's film with the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize, was divided. "It’s never perfect," admitted jury president Robert De Niro at yesterday's press conference. "You have to make some sort of compromise. This wasn’t a compromise, but the process is never 100%. Most of us felt it was the movie with the size, importance, intention…whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize. Most of us felt the movie was terrific."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but one that reflects the love-it-or-hate response to Malick's new film, which opens Friday in the U.S.. A sampling of some of the impassioned critiques for and against The Tree of Life that emerged from Cannes


  • "What Malick does in The Tree of Life  is create the span of lives," raved Roger Ebert. "Of birth, childhood, the flush of triumph, the anger of belittlement, the poison of resentment, the warmth of forgiving. And he shows that he feels what I feel, that it was all most real when we were first setting out, and that it will never be real in that way again."
  • "[I]t is hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize even buffs, some of whom might fail to grasp the connection between the depiction of the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family," cautioned the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film.
  • At The GuardianPeter Bradshaw heaped the praise on Malick's "mad and magnificent" picture. "It's a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions," declared Bradshaw, "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." (It also has Brad Pitt.)
  • Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly self-identifies as "pro-Malick," but she can't quite bring herself to offer a full-on rave. The director, she writes, has made "a (typically) fascinating but confounding jumble of two works in one. Under the circumstances, I’ll call them the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Or maybe the luminously precise and the woo-woo spiritual-lite."
  • Bloomberg's Farah Nayeri calls the film "intoxicatingly slow." In this case it's meant as a compliment for "one of the more complete movies at Cannes this year," but it's a line that could have just as easily come from one of Malick's detractors. (Nayeri, it should be noted, found fault with the "chunky section on the birth of the cosmos featuring dinosaurs" that produced an "awkward Jurassic Park moment"
  • "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," argues Variety's Justin Chang. He concedes that it's "inescapably divisive picture," but one that "could captivate the zeitgeist for a spell."

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  • The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, meanwhile, found the 138-minute film relentlessly austere and disinterested in people "[Heat director] Michael Mann, you could argue, is no less obsessed with the physical spaces that we inhabit," admits Lane, "yet to experience “The Tree of Life” is less like watching a Mann movie than like reading Emerson’s 'The Over-Soul.'"
  • "[T]hrough much of The Tree of Life, Malick, characteristically, doesn’t seem to care much for people at all," observes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek, echoing Lane's criticism about Malick's lack of interest in real human emotion. "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."
  • At 138 minutes, it isn't long before "Waco begins to look wacko,...and the overall effect [gets] wispy," writes the Baltimore Sun's Mike Sragow.
  • Lars Von Trier's pro-Hitler statements at the press conference for his film Melancholia led festival organizers to declare him "persona non grata" last week. That's a shame, writes Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times, because Von Trier's film deserved the top prize more than The Tree of Life, which was given the Palme d'Or "for much the same reason people are said to climb Everest (it was big and it was there)." Malick's "inflated pantheism, poetic one moment, portentous the next," is thin gruel compared to Von Trier's "flickering cinematic fire and bold, outrageous story-making."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.