The Washington Post

‘Tree of Life’: Critics pile on the prose in attempt to review Brad Pitt’s latest

Brad Pitt getting his photo snapped while promoting “Tree of Life” at Cannes. (Pascal Le Segretain/GETTY IMAGES)

When director Terrence Malick makes a long-awaited, 138-minute epic about the nature of life, death and religion — a film called “The Tree of Life” that stars Brad Pitt and first screened for critics at the Cannes Film Festival earlier today — one has to expect the reviews to feature a bit of overinflated, occasionally convoluted prose.

Indeed, if the response to “Life” is mixed, one thing seems consistent: reviewers have a hard time explaining the movie without writing some decidedly wordy sentences. If you didn’t know what “Tree of Life” was about before, the reviews may not necessarily clarify matters.

Take this four-star assessment from the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, whose first sentence is a doozy: “Terrence Malick’s mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship: it's a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love.”

“A cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions” — I mean, isn’t that the same phrase everyone used to describe “Fast Five”?

Wait, let’s not dwell on that. Instead, let’s focus on macrocosms. (By the way, it may be best to listen to the appropriately swelling and introspective sounds of Sia’s “Breathe Me” while reading these various reviews. Just a suggestion.)

After all, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly does, briefly, in her “Tree of Life” review: “What this pro-Malick, 7:30 a.m. queue participant saw: A (typically) fascinating but confounding jumble of two works in one. Under the circumstances, I’ll call them the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Or maybe the luminously precise and the woo-woo spiritual-lite.”

If you’re short on time, I’ll go ahead and let you know that Schwarzbaum is a fan of the film. And, to her credit, she conveys that succintly in just six paragraphs.

Tom McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter says that Malick’s latest will likely polarize viewers, but also notes that it features one of Brad Pitt’s finest performances. He also adds:

Treeis destined to be endlessly likened to 2001: A Space Odyssey,due to the spacy imagery of undefinable celestial lights and formations as well as because of its presentation of key hypothetical moments in the evolution of life on this planet,” he writes. “There are also equivalent long stretches of silence and semi-boredom designed, perhaps, to provide some time to muse about matters rarely raised in conventional narrative films.”

Ah, long stretches of silence and semi-boredom: It’s what most Americans can get at work for free without paying for the price of a movie ticket.

But my favorite review so far comes from Stephanie Zacharek of MovieLine, who does an excellent, straight-forward job of expressing her feelings about “Tree of Life.” First, she notes some details that should excite movie fans who live for scenes involving primordial ooze: “Here is where Malick takes a breather to ponder the origins of life: It begins, apparently, with a shiny, glowing, translucent pinky-blue light-up mussel floating in black space. Next, there are some bubbles of primordial ooze and some jellyfish. Dinosaurs appear (and they arepretty good dinosaurs, the one thing in Tree of Lifethat impart a genuine sense of wonder).”

Then she concludes with a blunt assessment free of flowery prose: ”I can already hear the chorus of dissenters: But you just don’t understand! Tree of Life [is] a tone poem made by a genius! You need to see it again, or at least think about it a lot more! Admittedly, in this particular case, deadline constraints demanded some pretty rapid processing. But I don’t think I’d find much more beneath the surface of Tree of Life if I thought about it for 12 more hours or 12 more days.”

I am not sure that I will agree with Zacharek; I’ll have to see “Tree of Life” for myself to decide, something I look forward to doing. But I respect her ability to put the epic in perspective on a very tight deadline, even with all that primordial ooze in the way.

When she isn’t at a movie theater or writing about movies, Jen Chaney is ... um ... probably at home, watching a movie.


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