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Cannes 2011: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life divides critics

Tree of Life

Preview by Jack Foley

IT WAS always going to be one of the most polarising films of Cannes and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has more than lived up to expectation.

The Monday screening was greeted with a mixture of boos and applause and immediately sent Twitter ablaze with snapshot initial reactions.

The film, set in 1950s America, revolves around the relationship between a father and son. It stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain.

As ever with a Malick film, much of the film’s content remained shrowded in secrecy right up until the screening itself.

But anticipation has been rising ever since it was supposed to have made its debut at Cannes last year, only to be withdrawn at the last minute. This anticipation then became heightened when UK distributor Icon Pictures announced its intention to release the film over here just days ahead of its Cannes debut, which would have made it ineligible for competition.

In what proved a tense stand-off between Cannes and Icon, the former eventually won and The Tree of Life no longer has a UK distributor or release date.

Now that it has been unveiled, the film finds Pitt playing a loving but stern father, and Penn as the grown-up son, named Jack, reflecting on the people and moments that shape his life.

Among the first to react was The Hollywood Reporter, which summed up the post-screening mood to a tee by writing that it’s “a unique film that will split opinions every which way”.

Elaborating further, it states that The Tree of Life “is hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize even buffs, some of whom may fail to grasp the connection between the depiction of the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family”.

Pitt, however, was singled out for praise in what Todd McCarthy describes as one of his finest performances. Read more

The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw emphatically praised the film, awarding it a maximum 5 out of 5, and concluding: “This is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that’s thinking big. Malick makes an awful lot of other film-makers look timid and negligible by comparison.” Read more

Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun was more measured in his praise, stating: “There’s so much brilliance at work in The Tree of Life, the new film from Terrence Malick, and the film’s ambition and willingness to lay itself open to interpretation are hard to fault.

“But it’s also difficult not to conclude that this hugely anticipated film from American cinema’s lesser-spotted poet of man and nature is a work that stretches itself so broadly by asking the Big Questions that it ends up dealing in platitudes.” Read more

Variety, meanwhile, was more positive, declaring that “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”.

It added: “The iconoclastic director’s long-awaited fifth feature is in many ways his simplest yet most challenging work, a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy’s 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth’s origins.

“Result is pure-grade art cinema destined primarily for the delectation of Malick partisans and adventurous arthouse-goers, but with its cast names and see-it-to-believe-it stature, this inescapably divisive picture could captivate the zeitgeist for a spell.” Read more

Empire‘s Damon Wise wrote: “I thought an interesting, impressionistic and almost certainly autobiographical film was sunk by its ambition. Malick takes his elliptical style to new, almost incomprehensible levels, but the real problem is Sean Penn as Jack, a Wall Street trader (perhaps) reflecting on his fraught relationship with his father. Read more

And Total Film magazine’s first reaction was mixed, too, stating: “Fans of The New World and The Thin Red Line especially will embrace it, flaws and all. Others may be mystified at best, bored at worst. It’s clear, though, that in attempting something so big, rich and strange, Malick is no dinosaur.” Read more

Related story: Find out what Brad Pitt has to say about The Tree of Life