Ever since the release of Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s marked Terrence Malick as one of the most talented emerging American filmmakers of the late 20th century, he’s been a polarizing figure. While the general critical reaction to Malick’s early films was generally rhapsodic, Pauline Kael, at the time the most influential American critic from her perch at The New Yorker, likened Days of Heaven to an “empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it.”
Many of the same critical fissures reappeared with the Cannes premiere on Monday of Malick’s “long awaited” (accurate, despite being a journalistic cliché; the film was initially expected to be a prominent part of last year’s Cannes competition line up) The Tree of Life. The mixture of raucous boos (not uncommon among the notoriously impatient Cannes critics pool) and exuberant applause at the conclusion of the press screening underscored the fact that Malick—known for his shyness, he was, unsurprisingly, a no-show at the subsequent press conference, much to the sardonic disdain of moderator Henri Behar—still inspires fighting words in critical circles. To a certain extent, the critical contentiousness over Malick represents a continuation of old battles between auteurists—who, in the tradition of the French film journal Cahiers du Ciné ma and American critic Andrew Sarris, hail Malick for his thematic consistency and artistic independence—and Kael and her disciples, pop-culture enthusiasts with a tendency to be massively impatient with films that can be branded self-indulgent.
This sort of schism is evident in the early reviews from Cannes. Todd McCarthy, a critic heavily influenced by Sarris, labeled The Tree of Life “an exceptional and major film” in The Hollywood Reporter, while Movieline’s Stephanie Zacharek found it a “ gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption.”
While it’s easy to be snarky about the ambitions of The Tree of Life—a film that conjoins the travails of a Texas family in the 1950s with nothing less epochal than a chronicle of the birth of mankind, from the big bang to the advent of dinosaurs and beyond—it’s difficult not to admire the single-mindedness of a director who, by earning the trust of Fox Searchlight and coproducer Brad Pitt, has been granted the rare opportunity to make what is essentially an experimental film within the belly of the Hollywood beast.
What appears to most annoy The Tree of Life’s detractors is the fact that Malick chose to make a film that scrambles chronology, plays with narrative conventions, and is more of a far-ranging, and admittedly sometimes vaporous, critical essay than a character-centered drama. Although several journalists at the press conference implored Pitt and his costar Jessica Chastain to elaborate on “religious” motifs in The Tree of Life.
What appears to most annoy The Tree of Life’s detractors is the fact that Malick chose to make a film that scrambles Hollywood beast chronology.
Malick’s interpretation of traditional Christian themes is highly idiosyncratic. In Malick’s schema, Mr. O’Brien, the rigid Texan patriarch (Pitt), and Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain), his kindly, matriarchal wife, exemplify the warring forces of brute “nature” and benevolent “grace.” (Perhaps Malick avoids giving them “Christian” names to avoid the audience from feeling overly chummy with these archetypal figures.) A crisis rocks the family after the sketchily explained death of the O’Briens’ middle son, an event that clearly scars Jack (Hunter McCracken), the sensitive eldest son, as well as his grief-stricken parents. Numerous glimpses of the adult Jack (Sean Penn), adrift in Houston as antiseptic skyscrapers tower over him, reinforce Malick’s scorn for the modern world, depicted as a soulless realm devoted to commerce and out of tune with the flux of nature.
There is something undeniably insular and, in many respects, naive about Malick’s conception of the universe as showdown between a brutal male evolutionary will to power and maternal compassion. Political and social considerations are of little interest to a director obsessed with apocalyptic Big Themes. Yet if Malick skimps on social commentary, the great virtue of his work is that, in an era where a distressing number of people watch movies exclusively on their laptops, it provides viewers with an immersive experience that is best appreciated within the confines of a movie theater equipped with a huge screen. Along with films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Douglas Trumbull, known for supervising 2001’s special effects, served as Malick’s special-effects consultant) and the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, The Tree of Life offers a tantalizing puzzle to an audience that either relishes the opportunity to piece together the thematic loose ends or responds with boredom and disgust. According to rumors, Malick is preparing a silent version of the film suitable for IMAX projection, an intriguing prospect that affirms the director’s much-commented-upon allegiance to the aesthetic agenda of silent cinema. Like the great silent director F. W. Murnau, whose influence on Days of Heaven was conspicuous to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of film history, Malick paints gorgeous cinematic tableaux inspired by a romantic view of nature and hostility toward the corruptions of urban life.
As an exemplar of a director with an aversion to repeating tired Hollywood formulas, Malick can be seen as a forerunner of some of the promising American directors from the independent scene whose work is on display at this year’s Cannes. In the Directors’ Fortnight, Return—Liza Johnson’s moving debut feature about a female soldier (played brilliantly by Linda Cardellini) whose sojourn in Iraq leads to home-front disillusion when she reunites with her family in Rust Belt Ohio—reinvents American realism with the same verve as Malick reinvented silent expressionism. Another first film, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar after receiving initial acclaim in this year’s edition of Sundance)—a scarily effective portrait of life in an authoritarian cult that features a breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen, half sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen—is as fiercely experimental and attentive to visual detail as any of Malick’s films. If the commercial future of American cinema probably lies, alas, with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (screened out of competition at Cannes, where it was met with critical scorn), its artistic future resides with the fortunes of daring filmmakers such as Johnson and Durkin.
Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.