Will We Ever See Malick's 'Tree of Life'?

Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is coming. Or is it?

Like everything the acclaimed 68-year-old filmmaker does, Malick's latest — just his fifth film in 38 years — has gone through a mysterious gestation, changing release dates and distributors numerous times (it was originally slated for a Dec. 25, 2009, release) while simultaneously revealing little about its contents.

It looks like the wait is finally over: I received a package from its current distributor, Fox Searchlight, a few days ago that contained the film's poster and a brief, one-sheet press release announcing that Tree of Life will open in select theaters on May 27. —-

Or will it? The hope was that it would premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which opens May 23. But recent unconfirmed reports say that Malick is still working on the film and that it will not be ready in time to play at Cannes — remember that it was rumored to be debuting at last year's fest? — which, if correct, likely means it will not be ready for a U.S. release on May 27.

Given the director's penchant for endlessly tweaking his films — both when in production and post-production — it's likely Fox Searchlight will have to pry the final cut from his obsessive, artistically restless hands.

Yet whenever and wherever it finally ends up surfacing, it's safe to say that Fox Searchlight and cinema geeks everywhere have high hopes for the film.

“Sometimes a film comes along that transforms everything,” Fox's press release opens. “The way we see art. The way we see life. The way we see ourselves and others.”

For once, the PR hyperbole might be justified. Malick's previous efforts — Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005) — are among the most revered films of the last 40 years for their poetic use of cinematic techniques (lush cinematography that largely utilizes natural lighting; deft editing; immersive sound design, etc.) and their interest in the way nature nourishes the soul in contrast to the evil that men do.

“Fox Searchlight is proud to introduce audiences to Terrence Malick's impressionistic story THE TREE OF LIFE,” the release continues.

The use of “impressionistic” is apt, given that Malick has had little interest in straightforward narratives in the past. (I still vividly remember the response of a middle-aged woman after watching The Thin Red Line: “That movie made no sense! And George (Clooney) was barely in it!”) Most of what we know about The Tree of Life's story comes from a synopsis released at the 2010 American Film Market:

“We trace the evolution of an eleven-year-old boy in the Midwest, Jack, one of three brothers. At first all seems marvelous to the child. He sees as his mother does with the eyes of his soul. She represents the way of love and mercy, where the father tries to teach his son the world's ways of putting oneself first. … From this story is that of adult Jack, a lost soul in a modern world.”

Heady stuff, huh? Brad Pitt plays the young Jack's dad, while Sean Penn plays the adult Jack. Based on the synopsis and Malick's past interests, it's a pretty safe assumption that the director equates the mother with all that is good in the world (nature/adolescence) and the father with all that is evil (modern life/adulthood).

The film's new website confirms the dynamic at play, splitting the site's home page in half: One side is “the father's way,” the other “the mother's way.” Clicking on either of those phrases brings up the option to view brief clips from the film that apparently correspond with each parent's "way." Then there's the cryptic but typically poetic trailer:

Jack Fisk, Malick's longtime production designer, has said that the director is trying to do “something radical” with The Tree of Life, which is now being described as a mix of drama, fantasy and science fiction. Dan Glass, the film's visual effects supervisor, has said that The Tree of Life will feature “microbial and astronomical imagery, along with dinosaurs.”

Dinosaurs? Microbial and astronomical imagery? This is starting to sound like Malick's version of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Fisk has said that The Tree of Life is “a very powerful movie about memories and our place in the world.”

Now if we can just get its maker to release it to the world.

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