Monday, May 16, 2011

Terrence Malick's Tree of Life has been planted at Cannes...what now?

Well, the wait ended today...'Tree of Life' finally revealed itself. Terrence Malick's long delayed opus screened at the Cannes Film Festival as well as to select people in places like New York and Los Angeles. The verdict? Even more mixed than we expected, it seems. There will be more said about the film in the coming days (and even below in this article), but I wanted to just turn our attention to the possible Oscar implications of this. With the festival so far propelling Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris', Michel Hazanavicius's 'The Artist', and Lynne Ramsey's 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' to the forefront in terms of quality, there are some new contenders to consider in early predictions. Likewise, Julia Leigh's 'Sleeping Beauty' and Gus Van Sant's 'Restless' debuting to less than stellar reviews and seemingly being out of the race before it's even really began has shaped things as well.
Where does that leave Malick's 'Tree of Life'? Well, I think the end result is that it's probably not going to gain the traction necessary for a real shot at Oscar glory, though don't count it out of the tech categories. Could this change when the critical community en masse chimes in next week when the film opens in the US? Of course...and even more so when the precursors begin in the 4th quarter of the year.
Where this all leaves us is right back where we started, essentially. Anyone looking for the flick to burst on the scene and begin a long march to Best Picture is sorely disappointed today, but those of us still feeling out the race to come just saw the field widen considerably.
Personally, I'm going to be removing the film from a lot of my early predictions next time around, but that's just me...
Want more on 'Tree of Life'? Well, then hit the jump for more!

Here's the Deadline story on the festival debut of 'Tree of Life':

While the foreplay between the Cannes Film Festival and Terrence Malick's complex rumination The Tree of Life has been going on for well over a year, it finally climaxed with this morning's 8:30 AM press screening. There was such anticipation for this film that the cavernous 2300-seat Lumiere Theatre at the Palais was completely full a half hour ahead of showtime -- unprecedented. Reactions afterwards seem to be mixed. There was a smattering of loud boos when the picture went to black at the end, but then good (but not spectacular) applause once Malick's name came up onscreen. One columnist immediately emailed a friend, "the film is terrible," while another critic rushed to print calling it "major."

The movie splits its time between the lives of a family in 1950's Texas with cosmic images of how the Universe was created, a couple of dinosaur cameos and bigger metaphysical questions about our existence than anyone can answer in a 2-hour, 18-minute movie, even Terrence Malick. It's not a traditional kind of narrative but rather an experiencemeant to inspire deep thought about our own lives in a greater context. For those special effects sequences detailing the beginnings of time alone the three companies whose logos appear at the top of the film (Fox Searchlight, Summit, River Road) should be doing everything they can to insure this gets booked on to every available IMAX screen. It's a visual stunner, as you might expect from a man whose four previous films were Days Of Heaven, Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World.

Four-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was behind the camera and did a sterling job juxtaposing between small-town Texas and the evolution of the world, no easy task. Certainly what's on display in this much-delayed work is vintage Malick, the kind of auteur Cannes loves (he won Best Director here for Days Of Heaven in 1978), but it can't help but divide audiences the way many great art films do. It can be compared in ways to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also split audiences at the time but now is regarded a true classic (not surprisingly, 2001 special effects wizard Douglas Trumball consulted here too).

Some people have the patience and curiosity to endlessly explore movies like this like they would a great painting, others just want the normal popcorn fare. This isanything but that as principals, including star (and producer) Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, tried to explain at the press conference that followed the screening. Missing was co-star Sean Penn, who is en route from Haiti to Cannes for tonight's premiere (and the preem of his other film here later in the week, This Must Be The Place, as well as Wednesday night's Cinema For Peace dinner at the Carlton where he is being honored for his humanitarian work) according to producer Bill Pohlad, who also appeared on the panel with producers Grant Hill, Sarah Green and Dede Gardner (Pitt's producing partner). Most notably absent though was Malick himself, a highly unusual occurence at a Cannes press conference. This is a director-driven fest if ever there was one. Green explained away the absence of the ultra-reclusive helmer. "Mr. Malick is very shy. He likes to think his work can speak for himself," she said, and when pressed further, it was emphasized "he's really shy." The fact is Malick is here for the premiere and will be walking the red carpet tonight, which is an easy thing in Cannes since at premieres directors just wave, pose for pictures and soak up the adulation. One thing they don't have to do is talk. Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley told me a few weeks ago that Malick would be travelling to Cannes but likely unavailable while he was here. He never gives interviews, not even in the official press notes.

It really didn't matter, since most of the questions were about Malick anyway, even with Pitt sitting right there in the middle. Pitt explained how he loved Malick's directorial style. "I could go on about him for a couple of days. He was more interested in capturing what might be happening on that day (rather than what's in the script), waiting for the truth to come. There was only one light on the set, the rest was all natural and handheld. I don't know that I could do this a lot. It was exhausting, but you see what you get," he said. Of this experience Pitt also added, "It's changed everything I've done since. For me, the best moments are not pre-conceived or planned. I now try to go off script and see what happens."

Pitt said he and Plan B Entertainment partner Gardner jumped on board because they wanted to see Malick's script made. "I was surprised by the structure. It's quite ingenious merging the micro with the macro and finding parallel truths in it," he said. As for the version that was meant to originally come to Cannes last year but was eventually deemed "not ready" compared with the version being debuted today, Pohlad said "there isn't a huge difference, but there were refinements."

The film is certainly stirring up talk here, so Malick, the Garbo of directors, will get his wish. People will decide for themselves. As I mentioned in a piece yesterday, Chastain told me Sunday she likes to tell people "this is a movie that could change cinema." After seeing The Tree of Life, I would say that would only be possible if studios start giving extrordinary visionary but eclectic directors like Malick big budgets to bring their personal art to the screen -- and that ain't happening in Hollywood's corporate culture anytime soon. Bottom line is every now and then one slips through the system, gets made, even released with the director's vision intact. And that's why we've finally got this one to argue about up and down the Croisette today.

Before the fest started, many in the media were predicting Malick, with his film sight-unseen, could be the one to beat for the Palme d'Or. It's certainly possible, but with so many of Cannes' favorite auteur directors still to come this week, the race for Sunday's top honors is just heating up.

Here's what The Wrap had to say about the reception of Malick's film, both at Cannes and here at home:

"The Tree of Life" didn’t just dominate moviegoers conversations in Cannes today. Sure, Terrence Malick's years-in the-making film was the talk of the Croisette, from an 8:30 a.m. screening that required a second theater to handle the overflow, to an evening premiere that attracted the likes of Faye Dunaway, Gwen Stefani, Isabelle Huppert and of course Brad and Angelina.

Tree of Life cast(Photo of Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

But Fox Searchlight also screened the film repeatedly in London, in New York and in Los Angeles, lifting the veil on a movie that once upon a time was thought to be on track for a late 2009 release, or at least a 2010 Cannes berth.

The Cannes audience was famously divided: Sasha Stone's first take from that morning screening is here, and her longer review here. And other critics seemed to agree about a few things: the film is not commercial, it's stunningly beautiful, and it's like nothing else you've seen.

Todd McCarthy called it "an exceptional and major film" in a review that began like this: "Brandishing an ambition it’s likely no film ... could entirely fulfill, 'The Tree of Life' is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amidst its narrative imprecisions."

Justin Chang said the film "represents something extraordinary" (which I guess is different from being something extraordinary) and said it was "a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy's 1950s upbringing with a majesterial rumination on the Earth's origins."

Lisa Schwarzbaum was more divided: "A (typically) fascinating but confounding jumble of two works in one … the luminously precise and the woo-woo spiritual-lite."

Guy Lodge said he was left "stimulated but unmoved," adding, "his most open-armed and structurally undisciplined film to date, it might yet prove his least rewarding."

And Jeff Wells, while declaring that the film runs aground somewhat after a dazzling opening stretch, nonetheless scolded those who dared to boo after the first Cannes screening: "I think it's beastly to boo a film as hauntingly beautiful and immensely ambitious and spiritually directed as this one."

The trouble with all of this is that Malick is so significant a filmmaker, and the lengthy delays before he finally showed "The Tree of Life" were so long, that reviewers have been all but forced to rush into print with instant verdicts. And after seeing it on Monday morning in Los Angeles, I'd say that this is clearly a film that needs time to settle, and quite possibly additional viewings as well.

But in keeping with the fact that this is, to borrow a phrase from the Hot Blog, "Just Another Malick Monday," I'll say this: the view from these shores is that "The Tree of Life" is magnificent and maddening, frequently dazzling and occasionally disappointing.

It takes the lyrical sequences that ran through "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World" as counterpoint to the action – all those whispered voiceovers over shots of rustling grass, wind blowing through trees, water and sky – and tells almost the entire story in that fashion. The main plotline, of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain and their three kids in the 1950s, is told in fragments, not scenes; we drop in the middle of the action, or on the edges of the action, and then leave before anything is settled.

Tree of Life posterAgain and again, this is a work assembled in rapturous montage. (Its poster, right, is more accurate than I realized.) It's the most daring and unconventional film that a major or major-affiliated studio will release this year not because it opens with a half-hour reverie that begins with parents learning of a child's death and works in the creation of the universe – but because once it leaves that gorgeous sequence, it continues to use those rhythms and moods to tell the story.

"The Tree of Life" is a dreamscape built on the words of the mystical medieval monk Thomas a Kempis, and the music of Berlioz and Brahms and Bach and Ligeti. At its best, it finds a true "way of grace," a phrase taken from a crucial Chastain voiceover; at its clunkiest, it slows to a crawl to overembellish a story that can’t bear the weight.

It can be inspiring and it can be infuriating, and it will almost certainly be too weird for a mainstream audience and too weird to win (though maybe not to be nominated for) Best Picture. It will likely be in the mix for a variety of awards, for its editing and its art direction and above all its cinematography, which is absolutely stunning.

In April, when Searchlight launched a new website for the film, "Two Ways Through Life," I called the site weird and tantalizing, enigmatic and haunting, vague and impressionistic. It turns out that the site is also a completely accurate representation of the film itself.

"The Tree of Life" deserves more time; it deserves not to be reduced to the question "did they boo?" and a series of instant reviews and an opening-weekend box-office figure.

This one, I suspect, will be dominating moviegoers' conversations for some time to come.



  1. I definitely think the conversation about this film is just beginning...

  2. The response of this film is pretty much what people expected. Mixed feelings. That however does not mean the end of an Oscar race, specially with a film like this. Many other films started with a bad start only to find its footing in the race and run with the prizes so I would not scratch anything with the name Tree of Life until I start seeing some overwhelming negative press coming from American critics, remember most of the negative comments are coming from France, which was sad to have hated The Social Network and Black Swan last year.

  3. You've mentioned The Social Network and Black Swan in this context before, and it's just not a factual argument. TSN didn't screen at a film festival, selected critics saw it before its opening and were unanimous in their praise. Any bad word of mouth came after the fact. Black Swan debuted at Venice to much more positive reviews...nothing like this.

    Keep in mind, it's not the negative reviews that will kill its major chances, but rather comments that it's a rather heady and hard to immediately digest work...words like that are poison with the Academy.

  4. I'm inclined to agree that even if The Tree of Life is as good as the most positive reviews suggest, there's just no way that this kind of film is going to hit big with Oscar voters...which is why I - alone among the staff - did not predict Terrence Malick for Best Director (not that I'm bragging or anything...).

  5. Indeed...right now I only have it down in my forthcoming update for Supporting Actress, Art Direction, and Cinematography. I could see it getting more love, but nowhere near where we thought it might reach up to...

  6. From the three or four reviews I've read, Brad Pitt seems like he could make some noise.

  7. He's definitely got a chance, provided they go supporting with him...