In all my years coming to Cannes, I’ve never seen the 8:30 AM Palais press screening fill up so fast. Guards were turning people away by 8 AM, who literally ran across the grass to queue for the back-up 9 AM screening at the Soixantieme. I decided not to wrestle my way in and took the path of least resistance to settle into a center middle row seat and let Terrence Malick’s fifth feature, the luminous The Tree of Life, wash over me.
That’s what this movie requires. There’s no need to take notes or worry about catching key plot points or dialogue. It’s a very simple look at a 50s family dynamic as a handsome couple, tough authoritarian father Brad Pitt and passive, loving mother Jessica Chastain, raise three sons in a bucolic Texas suburb (actually, Smallville, Texas). Chastain sets the mood for Malick’s quiet tone poem by reading words from Medieval monk Thomas a Kempis about nature and grace, which punctuate the movie. Malick gave the lines to Chastain, she told me yesterday, to read on set one day, as he was wont to do. As she read, birds sang on the track. Much later, while she was shooting far from Malick’s Austin editing room, he asked her to go into a booth and rerecord the section, but wound up using the original.
This is symptomatic of Malick’s improvisatory, painstaking quest for perfection on a film that he finally completed after years of prep, production and post-production, through a series of editors (winding up in the home stretch with The New World‘s Mark Yoshikowa). Malick even showed the film to students at the University of Texas for feedback.
At the packed press conference eschewed by Malick, who asked producer-star Brad Pitt to speak for him, producers Sarah Green and Grant Hill insist that Malick wanted it this way, and kept looking for fresh takes on the material. When challenged about Malick’s need for more powerful producers to keep him in check, Malick veteran Green responded: “He’s the most disciplined filmmaker I’ve ever worked with.” Pitt defended Malick as an “artist” who should not have to be a “salesman” as well.
But in the end, Hill admitted that the version finally revealed in Cannes was a “refinement” of what was supposed to show here last year; not drastically different. Backer/producer Bill Pohlad admitted there were many discussions and arguments–about the CG dinosaurs, among other things, which are quite elaborate. They are part of the history of life sequence which calls up Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, long montages of massive protostars and dust clouds in space, volcanic flows, crashing waves, and dividing cells. FX pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who created Kubrick’s effects, worked on Tree of Life‘s VFX for over a year, using some CG plus fluorescent dyes, milk, smoke, paint, high-speed cameras and folded lenses, accompanied by an Alexandre Desplat score mainly comprised of classical pieces from Holst, Bach, Goreckí and Mahler.
These sequences–along with a recurring computer design matrix used as chapter breaks–move in and out of the free-flowing family narrative that starts with the death of one of the boys at age 19, and then moves to business mogul Sean Penn, who pops into the narrative in brief bursts as the eldest brother, still trying to find his lost sibling in his head and heart.
Chastain and co-star/producer Pitt waxed reverential when talking about legendarily shy Malick. While Malick’s characters ask God for spiritual guidance and meaning, Pitt describes Malick as a spiritual man, but not a “compartmentalized Christian.” It reminds me of the way actors used to talk about Kubrick. Actors may revere such finicky filmmakers, who bear the burden of high expectations, but the experience of actually working with Malick was “exhausting,” admitted Pitt.
The actor said that Malick would write in the morning and bring to set three or four single-spaced pages for the actors, but would purposely dive-bomb them by throwing “the torpedo,” the youngest boy, into the scene to mix things up. “We would catch what was happening on the day,” says Pitt, adding that the cinematographer, New World‘s Emanuel Lubezki, used mostly natural light with one hand-held fill. (More from Lubezki here.) “The kids themselves weren’t given a script. The results were fresh. It was a pretty incredible experience.” And one that Pitt would not care to repeat.
Finally, Pitt deserves credit for wanting to stretch and helping Malick to get the film produced. “Sometimes great stories have great difficulty getting made, even with Terrence Malick. We’ve witnessed strong scripts go by the wayside and not get made. I wanted to make sure this one did, I jumped in… I’m not that highbrow…I like to find something new, that’s been my focus.”
The star is at his personal best here, giving a strong, physical, award-worthy performance as a controlling father who constantly molds and corrects his kids, filling them with fear and anger as well as love. Pitt was inspired enough from working with Malick to apply some of these lessons about seeking “happy accidents” in his later work. “I’ve found in the past that the best moments were not preconceived or planned,” he said.
Fox Searchlight will release the film stateside May 27. Does it have a potential Oscar life? Maybe, if the critics don’t jump all over it. Judging from the reaction this morning–both applause and boos– the movie won’t be unanimously praised, by any means. I’d say long overdue Pitt deserves consideration, along with Lubezki. Here’s the LAT.
Here’s Variety‘s quickie review, which covers all of its bases:
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. 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.
Here’s Todd McCarthy:
Brandishing an ambition it’s likely no film, including this one, 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. This fifth feature in Terrence Malick’s eccentric four-decade career is a beauteous creation that ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection. As such, it 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. But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film. Critical passions, pro and con, along with Brad Pitt in one of his finest performances, will stir specialized audiences to attention, but Fox Searchlight will have its work cut out for it in luring a wider public.