Register  |   Log In  |  
Sign up to our weekly newsletter    
Search   
Empire Magazine and iPad
Follow Me on Pinterest YouTube Tumblr
Empire
Trending On Empire
The Future Of Film
The 100 Greatest Video Games
The Making Of The West Wing
Subscribe To Empire Today
Save money and get 12 issues for only £25
London Film Festival 2014
Our round-up of the galas, films and interviews
Empire Blogs
Cannes 2011

Back to all blogs Comment Now

Cannes 2011: The Tree Of Life

Posted on Tuesday May 17, 2011, 08:10 by Damon Wise in Cannes 2011
Cannes 2011: The Tree Of Life

OK, so the question remains: how good was it ever going to be? Ironically, with every postponement, Terrence Malick's fifth film simply gained more and more momentum. For any other movie, an 18-month delay would be cinematic equivalent of the perfume of a tainted cheese, but with Malick the delay was somehow further proof of his seniority: his films aren't released, they're bestowed. But try telling the audiences here that. Unusually for Cannes, the Palais was besieged a full 45 minutes before the film even started. There were scrummages, raised voices, and the story goes that even the police were called. All this for a film that would be released to the whole of France the very next day. Yep. By the time you read this, it's probably playing in Paris right now.

I must admit that I knew quite a lot about the film going in, and those that liked it tended not to, so if you don't want to know anything about it, stop reading now. This is a film that benefits from ignorance but it's certainly not a stupid movie. In fact, the biggest problem with it is that it is quite maddeningly cerebral. From the opening quote, a line from the book of Job (an out-of-context Bible reference always makes my heart sink), The Tree Of Life is an earnestly intelligent film that never quite takes you where it seems to be going. It falls roughly into three parts, but they aren't the usual three acts; the first deals with grief as the O'Brien family learn that one of their three sons is dead (possibly in Vietnam; it's the kind of film that expects you to work it out). The second part is, oh, the dawn of time and the beginning of creation. And the third part is young Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) recalling his fractious relationship with his controlling father (Brad Pitt).

The framing device, such as it is (and it is is woven in throughout), is that Jack (Sean Penn), now a well-to-do Manhattan businessman (we don't know what he does), is reflecting on his relationship with the old man during a day at work. Some people said it was the anniversary of the brother's death but, if it was, I obviously don't have those eagle eyes. So old Jack starts thinking about his old self, about his free-spirited proto-hippie mother (Jessica Chastain) and his stern, punishing father. McCracken is great in these scenes, and Pitt is especially good too; it's refreshing to see a big star in an art movie where his motivations are reduced to soundbites about money, power and (thwarted) status.

The first section is by far the weakest. Malick uses voice-over, usually hushed, and a LOT of choral music. Some people will say I don't get this and that this is cinema as poetry; I will direct them to the work of the late Derek Jarman and note that it is hardly original. The second section, charting the birth of the universe and the creation of life delivers the goods. But it is so clearly in the shadow of the astral trip scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey that even its sheer, gorgeous spectacle (overseen by Douglas Trumbull) doesn't overwhelm. And then there's the third section; although it's the best, it's also the longest. There are some fascinating and even brilliant details in here, but Malick's zooming camera doesn't stop for a second. Think of the montage scenes in Boogie Nights and you have some measure of the frenzy to expect from this movie; lots of urgent zooms, tracks and dolly shots that never settle down, leading to scenes that are over-edited to slivers. The effect is meant to be Proustian, and you can take it that way, but it's narratively frustrating. And, again, people will say this is a film about images; in which case I will direct them to Godfrey Reggio's unforgettable 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi, which did much of this before, more calmly but just as beautifully.

If I were reviewing this, I don't know what I'd make of it. The sound was muffled, the French subtitles were awful, so I'd see it again before committing. But, as visually outstanding as it is, I do think this a pretty self-indulgent film, and even by Malick's elliptic standards it borders on self-parody – his Days Of Heaven, the film that set the template, had a very defined story arc that The Tree Of Life simply doesn't have. More than anything, though, I have a fear that Malick has made what he thinks is a very sensitive European art movie, when, if anything, what it reveals most are the overbearing neuroses of a very, very, very American filmmaker.

Login or register to comment.

Comments

1 Eddyhaynes140693
Posted on Tuesday May 17, 2011, 09:37
the Guardian Love it Empire Hate it, hmmm I reckon when it come out I'll proberly sit somewhere in the middle

2 jkconnell
Posted on Tuesday May 17, 2011, 11:28
To be honest, your review here very much sums up what I thought when I saw the trailer. I find Malick frustrating. I still hold the Thin Red Line as the greatest war movie ever made but then I also thought the New World was awful. I'll see before making a conclusion but 'self-indulgent' was very much my first instinct when I saw clips of this film.

Log in below, or register to post comments
Username:
Password:
Remember Me:

CATEGORIES

Empire States (440)

Under The Radar (323)

Infinite Lives (92)

Small Screen (57)

Words From The Wise (35)

Cannes 2011 (28)

Off The Wire (24)

Comic-Con 2010 (21)

Casting Couch (2)

Oscars 2011 (1)


RECENT POSTS

The Rio Festival: The Prizes
By Simon Braund

The Rio Festival: Closing Film
By Simon Braund

The Rio Film Festival: Trinto, Castanha, Campo de Jogo and Sangre Azul
By Simon Braund

The Rio Film Festival: The First Report
By Simon Braund

Zurich International Film Festival: Escobar: Paradise Lost
By Simon Braund

Zurich International Film Festival: The First Two Days
By Simon Braund

Night Visions 2013: The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears, We Are What We Are, Big Bad Wolves
By Owen Williams

Night Visions 2013: Jodorowsky's Dune, Nightsatan & The Loops Of Doom
By Owen Williams

Night Visions 2013: Adjust Your Tracking (or Does Anyone Actually Miss VHS?)
By Owen Williams

Night Visions 2013: Fresh Meat, The Colony, Sawney
By Owen Williams


RECENT COMMENTS

Night Visions 2013: Adjust Your Tracking (or Does Anyone Actually Miss VHS?)
"Or don't..."  Owen Williams
Read comment

Aruba 2013: Juan Francisco Pardo Q&A
"Sadece on altı dakika içinde iyi bir görsel hikaye anlatmak önemli beceri ve bel"  skndrdmr
Read comment

Aruba 2013: Opening Gala
"That really amazing."  ommrudraksha
Read comment

2013 IIFF - The Winners
"Hi Simon, Trying to get in touch with you. Hope this works. I enjoyed your piece on Enter t"  matthewpolly
Read comment

Christoph Waltz will win an Oscar
"although its old now :(, of course he was gonna win it :), one of the many idols of why i wanna be a"  SONYA ALALIBO
Read comment

Brisbane International Film Festival: First Report
"I think it is pretty clear the story revolves around The Blacksmith, in The Man With The Iron Fists,"  owenyunfat
Read comment

TIFF 2012: Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Cloud Atlas, The Place Beyond The Pines
"Thanks for the feedback! I hope I didn't give the impression that Cloud Atlas is a write-off; I just"  Damon_Wise
Read comment

TIFF 2012: Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Cloud Atlas, The Place Beyond The Pines
"Hi Damon With regards to Cloud Atlas, I fear that it will face the same problem a"  ChesterCopperpot
Read comment

TIFF 2012: Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Cloud Atlas, The Place Beyond The Pines
"No worries! I just try to describe things as I see them, and I often forget that, as Empire has grow"  Damon_Wise
Read comment

TIFF 2012: Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Cloud Atlas, The Place Beyond The Pines
"Don't get me wrong, I appreciate your early reviews from the festivals, and of course, I'm not alway"  pythonlove
Read comment


POPULAR POSTS

Sundance Part Six: In The Loop
13 comments

The Times BFI London Film Festival Preview
9 comments

Basterds Blog
9 comments

Damo's Top Ten Of 2009
9 comments

Sundance 2010: Four Lions blows everyone away!
8 comments

Sundance 2010: The Killer Inside Me causes outrage!
7 comments

Chris Hewitt Of The Year Award!!!!
7 comments

TIFF 2012: Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Cloud Atlas, The Place Beyond The Pines
7 comments

The Wrestler
6 comments

Uncle Boonmee: An Explanation
6 comments


BLOGGERS
Damon Wise (297)
Helen O'Hara (181)
James Dyer (86)
Amar Vijay (71)
Ali Plumb (56)
James White (29)
Phil de Semlyen (20)
Owen Williams (15)
Simon Braund (6)
Ally Wybrew (2)
Ben Kirby (1)
Dan Jolin (1)
Ian Nathan (1)
David Parkinson (1)

SPECIAL FEATURE
The 301 Greatest Movies Of All Time EMPIRE READERS' POLL: THE 301 GREATEST MOVIES OF ALL TIME
You turned out in your hundreds and thousands, and here are the results... Browse the full list


CURRENT HIGHLIGHTS
Avengers: Age Of Ultron Trailer Reaction
We dive under the hood of Whedon's sequel teaser

10 Of The Most Impressive In-Universe Movie Tie-In Websites
From Blair Witch to Days Of Future Past, expand your cinematic horizons online

The 12 Apps Every Film Fan Needs On Their Smartphone
The handheld essentials to enhance your movie life

Empire Meets Jason Bateman And Tina Fey
The stars of This Is Where I Leave You hang out

The Scariest Film Of The Year? Jennifer Kent On The Babadook
The director talks us through her terrifying new film

10 Horror Spin-Offs We Want To See
After Annabelle, what other supporting characters deserve their own film?

Documentaries: What Happened Next
We track down and interview the stars of great non-fiction films

Subscribe to Empire magazine
Get 12 Issues Of Empire For Only £25!

Get exclusive subscriber-only covers each month!

Subscribe today

Subscribe to Empire iPad edition
Get The Empire iPad Edition Today

Subscribe and save money on annual digital subscription

Subscribe today
Buy single issues

Get 12 issues of Empire for just £25!
Get the world's greatest movie magazine delivered straight to your door! Subscribe today!
Empire's Film Studies 101 Series
Everything you ever wanted to know about filmmaking but were afraid to ask...
The Empire iPad Edition
With exclusive extras, interactive features, trailers and much more! Download now
Home  |  News  |  Blogs  |  Reviews  |  Future Films  |  Features  |  Interviews  |  Images  |  Competitions  |  Forum  |  iPad  |  Podcast  |  Magazine Contact Us  |  Empire FAQ  |  Subscribe To Empire  |  Register
© Bauer Consumer Media Ltd  |  Legal Info  |  Editorial Complaints  |  Privacy Policy  |  Bauer Entertainment Network
Bauer Consumer Media Ltd (company number 01176085 and registered address 1 Lincoln Court, Lincoln Road, Peterborough, England PE1 2RF)