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Critical Consensus: “Tree of Life” (Finally!) Arrives In Theaters as the Pick of the Week

Critical Consensus: "Tree of Life" (Finally!) Arrives In Theaters as the Pick of the Week

Days after it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes (and, on a lesser note, topped indieWIRE Cannes critics’ poll), Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a national rollout throughout June. It also becomes our second critic’s pick of the week (in a row, no less) to hail from Cannes 2011 (last week’s was Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris”).

It didn’t come easily: “Tree” narrowly topped “Christmas” – that is, “Tuesday, After Christmas” – to receive the top criticWIRE score among specialty films opening this week. A Cannes 2010 alum, Romanian import “Christmas” was directed by Radu Muntean and managed a “B+” average among criticWIRE participants, the same average as “The Tree of Life.” However, some nifty accounting shows that the B+ for “Tree” was slightly higher than the one for “Christmas,” and thus it becomes the pick of the week.

Set (mostly) in 1950s Texas, “Tree” stars Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and breakout newcomer Hunter McKracken. This logline-resistant movie finds Malick giving audiences a lot to chew on via his trademark visual poetry, from life and family to the cosmos, and beyond. It’s received grades from 23 different critics so far, with a wide range of opinions showing everything from “A+” to “C.” Clearly, there was more enthusiasm in the former direction and overall “Tree” seems to have made the critical mark. indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn calls it “a visually astounding achievement” in his Cannes review. He discusses it–and “Tuesday After Christmas”–below:

Cannes reached a spectacular conclusion last weekend — but, as always, the movies don’t end with the festival. Two new releases this week bear the festival’s stamp of approval: Newly minted Palme d’Or winner “The Tree of Life” and the disquieting Romanian family drama “Tuesday, After Christmas,” which played in the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar last year. Both movies involve emotionally conflicted fathers, innocent children and the disdainful mothers tasked with cleaning up the psychological mess that comes out of all that tension. But it’s not putting it gently to point out that the scales are quite different.

“Tuesday, After Christmas” is directed by Radu Muntean with a perpetual stillness that’s both literal (in his routine use of long takes) and immaterial, since much of the movie revolves around the reservations of blue-collar family man Paul (Mimi Branescu) as he waits for the right moment to tell his wife (Mirela Oprisor) about the affair he’s having with their daughter’s dentist (Maria Popistasu). New Romanian Cinema is often defined by a dreary atmosphere and the slow-burn inevitability of a dramatic climax, such as the textbook suspense that closes “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.” In “Tuesday, After Christmas,” Muntean spends the entire running time building to a single, tense confrontation between husband and wife, then gradually lets the air out. It’s more like he’s flexing his directorial skills than finding the greatest way to express them, but that still makes it a productive workout.

With “The Tree of Life,” which is certainly a lot more than an exercise for legendarily intricate director Terrence Malick, the absence of climactic moments like the one at the core of “Tuesday, After Christmas” are exactly what make the Cannes winner so effective on its own terms. A breezy search for the meaning of everything, “Tree of Life” earned its Cannes accolades by lacking conformity and yet speaking to everyone at once, even those unwilling to accept its luscious visual charms.

Look, I’m no unqualified Malick apologist. I’m still not sure which version of “The New World” I’ve seen, and consider the first half of “The Thin Red Line” to be just remarkable enough to make me wish the second half were a little better. However, I find Malick’s delicate visual sensibilities endlessly appealing, excusing even the most obvious symbolism as a momentary lapse in his generally spot-on lyrical sensibilities. As the Malick movie with the least amount of story — and the story that’s there is thrown to the wind in a dozen directions — “The Tree of Life” plays like a culmination of the Malick touch, with all its strengths and flaws blended together like some kind of painterly collage.

This results in an experience that makes us feel more than think, a proposition that (reasonably) makes some people uncomfortable or upset. From the bluntness of his metaphors to the soul-searching voiceovers that support them, Malick’s elegance is childlike, but profoundly so. (I actually find that his sweeping camera recalls the similarly ethereal style that Gaspar Noé uses in “Enter the Void” to convey an out-of-body encounter with passing memories. Noé has also been accused of being a juvenile stylist, but I doubt the two movies would get along on a double bill.) Regardless, the simpler aspects of Malick’s outlook — to me, at least — imbue the movie with a primal, instinctive quality that’s a wonder to behold.

From dinosaurs to suburban backyards, Malick offers an unparalleled encounter with several versions of the past, rather than a single definitive one, in ravishing detail. Some find the preternaturally clean imagery of “Tree of Life” too perfect, almost paradoxically commercial. I think that perception hides a rather uneasy possibility: Malick’s cosmic vision amounts to a shameless existential orgy with the great unknown.

Check out the links below for more extensive takes on both “The Tree of Life” and “Tuesday, After Christmas.”

Also offered is the top 10 criticWIRE scores for films already in theaters, which is currently topped by Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor.”

iW Film Calendar & criticWIRE:
criticWIRE | Opening this week | Opening this month | All Films A – Z

criticWIRE: Films Opening This Week
NOTE: The averages listed here are current as of the publishing of this article. They are subject to change as new grades come in, and will be updated in next week’s edition of this article.

The Tree of Life (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

Tuesday After Christmas (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

Puzzle (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: C-

criticWIRE: 10 Best Bets Already In Theaters

1. The Arbor (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: A-

2. Le Quattro Volte (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

3. Meek’s Cutoff (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

4. City of Life and Death (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

5. Certified Copy (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

6. Incendies (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

7. Cameraman: The Work and Life of Jack Cardiff (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

8. Midnight In Paris (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B-

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B

10. Caterpillar (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B

Previous Picks of the Week:
May 18: Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris”
May 11: Lu Chaun’s “City of Life and Death”
May 4: Koji Wakamatsu’s “Caterpillar”
April 27: Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor”
April 20: Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies”
April 13: Janus Metz’s “Armadillo”
April 6: Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff”
March 30: Michaelangelo Frammartino’s “Le Quattro Volte”

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