People walking out? It must be a great film!

Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life" (Photo courtesy of Merle Wallis/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

At the end of its screening at Cannes, where the movie took home the Palme D’Or, the festival’s award for best film, part of the audience applauded, and part of the audience booed. When I read about that, I knew I would love The Tree of Life. I was on writer/director Terrence Malick’s side, even though at the time I had never seen a movie by him. (He did co-write the screenplay for Dirty Harry, however, which I have seen.)

I was on his side because one of my favorite theologians had given him the thumbs up, and I had a hunch that if one were going to make a serious and stunningly beautiful movie that purports to say, among other things, that a loving God is responsible for our universe and the life within it, how else should it be received except as deeply divisive? On the art-house circuit, the most acclaimed filmmakers usually get props for creating films that are shockingly ugly, violent, and destructive. What happens when a filmmaker makes the antithesis of that—something shockingly beautiful? Witness the reaction to The Tree of Life.

It reminds me of my favorite artist. Listen to Bob Dylan’s Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert and listen to the divided reaction that he got from his audience. (This was the performance at which someone shouted, “Judas!” Dylan said, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!”) This is what artists have to do sometimes. They can’t wait for the audience to catch up with them. But they’re proven right in the long run—not that it matters to them.

With that in mind, I listened with amusement to an NPR All Things Considered piece yesterday (full audio not available) on the unusually large number of people walking out on the movie and asking for a refund. One theater manager described what was happening in his theater.

About 25 to 30 minutes into the film, he says, when it goes into “celestial, very beautiful space photography … that’s usually the first point that people walk out on. … There’s absolutely no narration and no narrative to it whatsoever, so I think people aren’t ready to necessarily accept that.”

And as the 5 to 10 percent of the audience that typically walks out leaves, he says, “they’re either angry or they’re baffled.” They’re wondering what the critically acclaimed film about a Texas family of the ’50s, starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, is all about.

I guess we Atlantans are more sophisticated than audiences in the Northeast. I didn’t notice anyone leaving.

Not to sound like your grandpa, but with all the garbage American moviegoers pay money for and sit through, they walk out on this? It boggles the mind. Except… The flip side is that 90 to 95 percent are staying, and the box office returns are good enough for it to stay in theaters another week. And many, perhaps most, people who’ve seen it have loved it. So stop being so grumpy, Brent!

2 thoughts on “People walking out? It must be a great film!”

  1. I loved this movie too. I heard that they are planning to release a 6 hour uncut version. That would be amazing. People walking out is an indication of the lack of patience or attention span common with us today. The movie requires you to just be and just absorb. At the end, I was just kind of stunned and wondered what had just happened, but I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie for days.

    1. That was my reaction. I kept thinking about it. Still am. It’s definitely the kind of movie you let wash over you. Don’t worry about all the details. It will reward repeated viewings.

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