More of an event than a film, The Tree of Life defies coherent narrative structure in favor of heady, impressionistic imagery; transporting us from the beginning of time to the afterlife and back, all the while purporting to know something about the meaning of life the rest of us don't.
While Terrence Malick's highly anticipated follow-up to The New World started strong -- taking the Palme d'Or at its Cannes premiere -- it's been fairly light on Best Picture nominations thus far. Its inclusion in the Oscar nomination pool is only slightly less baffling than an unexpected (and seemingly politically motivated) nod for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. These two films are the only Oscar nominees for Best Picture that did not receive the equivalent Golden Globe nomination.
The Tree of Life -- which has a respectable 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes -- was, in some sense, decades in the making: It evolved from Malick's since-abandoned project Q -- described as a surrealistic reptilian world -- which he began in 1978. Hailed as Malick's masterpiece before anyone had seen it, The Tree of Life was met with confusion and, in some cases, anger following its U.S. theatrical release.
Even one of the film's stars criticized the final cut.
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Sean Penn complained about Malick's treatment of the material.
I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read, Penn said. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.
Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.
And while Brad Pitt -- who has a much more prominent role -- was, naturally, more supportive of Tree of Life, he, too, acknowledged its potential limitations.
It doesn't follow any conventional kind of storyline, Pitt said from the red carpet at a screening. It's one that's more experiential than telling you a story. But I have to believe it's [a film] that has longevity and legs and it will find its time. Whenever it finds its time is good enough for me.
And it certainly provokes some debate, he added.
As far as Oscar campaigning is concerned, Pitt appears to have firmly (and wisely) hedged his bets with Moneyball, which also earned him a Best Actor nod. He's been more than happy to let interviewers like Jon Stewart ignore The Tree of Life altogether -- suggesting that he expects the Academy might do the same on Feb. 26.
Still, while many were measured in their praise, others were eager to embrace The Tree of Life -- perhaps prompted more by general admiration for the film's director than the project itself. It's difficult to imagine, for instance, that the same film in anyone other than Malick's hands could elicit rare effusion from New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who came close to gushing: It is like Wordsworth's 'Intimations of Immortality' transported into the world of 'Leave It to Beaver,' an inadequate and perhaps absurd formulation but one that I hope conveys the full measure of my astonishment and admiration.
To hear Scott tell it, those who don't share in his astonishment and admiration are simply not evolved enough to appreciate Malick's vision: He compares the director to Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, who pushed their readers forward toward a new horizon of understanding. While acknowledging that the film might not actually make sense, Scott predicts that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will.
The deification of Terrence Malick is alive and well in Hollywood, and certainly within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But as the relatively young director currently has four projects -- some star-studded -- in varying stages of production, there is little pressure to bestow Best Picture accolades on him now, especially since he is also nominated for Best Director (where his odds of winning are equally slim).
At press time, Tree of Life is tied for last place with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on The Wrap's Best Picture prognosticator, giving it 50/1 odds of winning. Not very encouraging, but anyone who dares to place their bets on Tree of Life has a chance to be very handsomely rewarded.
Tell us what you think: Is The Tree of Life DOA?
We'll publish the results of our Best Picture surveys the weekend of the Academy Awards.