5 Things We Do Know About Terrence Malick's Mysterious 'Tree of Life'

Here is the most tantalizing news about the anticipated film, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, which premieres Monday at Cannes.
Merie Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
"The Tree of Life"

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt as a macho dad who cosmically messes with his son Sean Penn's head, opens in the US May 27 and premieres Monday at the Cannes Film Festival to deafening buzz. 

But what do we really know about The Tree of Life now?

1. It will shake up this year's Oscar race tomorrow. Without seeing it, pundit Peter Knegt predicted in March that The Tree of Life is the frontrunner for this year's best picture Oscar. But a source says execs who read the script couldn't make heads or tails of it. "What can one say about The Tree of Life?" wrote critic David Thomson. "Just that for nearly 40 years it has been apparent that Malick might make a movie that could alter our understanding of what cinema should be. This may be it." "It all depends on tomorrow," says Los Angeles Film Festival artistic director David Ansen. "My hunch is it's going to be very metaphysical, very pantheistic, about nature, his childhood."

REVIEW: The Tree of Life

Scenes about a small-town boy's soul buffeted between a competition-obsessed father and a cooperation-teaching mother in a 1950s small town are apparently juxtaposed with apocalyptic asteroids hitting the earth, what appear to be blastulas energetically undergoing mitosis, and other natural marvels microscopic or as vast as Malick's poetical ambition. "With Malick the danger is the expectations," says Ansen. "The pattern with his films is, the expectations are enormously high, and there's usually a slight disappointment after the premiere, and further down the line, a reassessement." So even disappointment could easily be reversed by Oscar time. "My gut hunch is it might be too experimental for the Oscar. It may be a critical hit," says Ansen. 

2. No striptease artist was ever more artful than Fox Searchlight's calculatedly coy Tree of Life campaign. Thanks to Malick's titanic reputation and Salinger-like shyness, years of drama-heightening delays in the film's release, and the virtual news blackout on what the heck it's about, even the film's poster made news, and for Malick obsessives its website had the impact of the possibly dinosaur-killing asteroid in one of its 20 short clips. The trailer released this week has a lot more viewers than it would with a normal campaign.

3. We're lucky Malick finished it before humans became extinct. After Days of Heaven, Malick fans had to wait 20 years for his next film, 1998's The Thin Red Line. But The Tree of Life has actually had an arguably longer gestation. Production designer Jack Fisk told the Los Angeles Times that the director started collecting epic nature footage for what became The Tree of Life 38 years ago, when his acclaimed first film Badlands was released.

4. The film's breakout star is not Pitt or Penn. The new comet the film will launch onto the film scene is Jessica Chastain as Penn's loving mother, who contrasts with Pitt's performance as his pugilistic pop. “She’s the perfect mother," Chastain told Total Film."She sort of represents the unattainable; she’s the kind of mother I would love to be. She’s the embodiment of grace and compassion, of putting others before yourself."

5. People claim they know what's in it, but those who definitely know definitely aren't talking. On IMDb, someone called c37 posted an alleged review calling The Tree of Life "a tone poem in the vein of Tarkovksy's work. Tonally, it feels a bit like the opening of 2001 with a tiny bit of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and a tiny bit of Benjamin Button ... Plus, it's a f--king art film with CGI dinosaurs(!) I found it so audacious."

Not as audacious as claiming to have seen a top-secret movie without having the courage to state your name or how you came by this alleged information. This "review" is more plausible than believable. As Twitterer Leslie Boggs posted in one of the apocalyptic flood of Tree of Life tweets, "The first rule of Tree of Life is do not talk about Tree of Life. The second rule is WAIT OH S--- ARE THOSE F------ DINOSAURS?!"