Outside of Cannes, ‘Tree of Life’ Remains Magnificent and Maddening

The view from Stateside: the talk of Cannes is a rapturous reverie that'll likely be too weird for a mainstream audience

"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, though, 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.