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How Can "The Tree of Life" Be Perceived As Just a Long Commercial?

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire July 11, 2011 at 5:00AM

Terrence Malick's long-awaited grand opus "The Tree of Life" made headlines minutes following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival for earning applause and boos. The film went on to win the coveted Palme d'Or, but that hasn't stopped "Tree of Life" naysayers from criticizing Malick's ambitious spectacle.
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How Can "The Tree of Life" Be Perceived As Just a Long Commercial?
"The Tree of Life." Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Terrence Malick's long-awaited grand opus "The Tree of Life" made headlines minutes following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival for earning applause and boos. The film went on to win the coveted Palme d'Or, but that hasn't stopped "Tree of Life" naysayers from criticizing Malick's ambitious spectacle.

Some have derided it as being "boring" (Jason Solomons, The Observer) and "incredibly indulgent" (Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel), but a recent review by The Guardian's David Cox takes the cake for the most quotable and challenging critique.

His headline sums up his thesis: "The Tree of Life is a colossal commercial."

Before you say "ouch," give Cox a chance. His argument, though far from conventional, is well laid out and littered with praise for Malick. Note the following:

To its credit and unlike so much arthouse fare, Terrence Malick's behemoth makes no attempt to hide behind a protective wall of obscurity. It's slapped down its purpose with a Biblical text, a voiceover and indeed its title before you've settled into your seat... As an excavation of grand answers, "The Tree of Life" doesn't amount to much. Yet that's not too surprising, as its heart isn't in this quest. The film isn't really interested in exploring humanity's predicament; it wants to get on with singing that hymn to life. And it's life as a whole lot that ends up getting hymned, not the path through it on which the film chooses to bestow its particular seal of approval. There's nothing wrong with that.

The crux of his argument is made wholly apparent in the later passages of his review:

Handsome actors act exquisitely in surroundings gorgeously photographed. Their interactions aren't seriously interrogated but instead lavishly depicted with sumptuous, sweeping brush strokes. All we're being told is that life is wondrous in spite of its afflictions. It's a banal message, but one that has its place...The trouble with plundering the National Geographic channel, coffee-table books and chocolate-box tops, Jack Vettriano and Classic FM is that these things have been called on for similar purposes so often before that their deployment in such a demanding cause can only seem crass. Most obviously, the advertising industry has used these things to sell its products. This film is trying to use them to sell life.

Cox's appraisal of Malick's latest deserves some debate. Tell us what you think of his argument and of the film in the comment section below.





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