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The Tree of Life

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The works of Terrence Malick have always been slightly intangible, mystifying and poetic. With their hypnotizing voiceover, heavenly soundtracks, enchanting photography and an almost liturgical tone, Badlands (to a lesser extent), Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World made up for their lack of plot and character development. Would this again be the case for The Tree of Life?

As far as there's a plot in The Tree of Life, it takes place in a suburban American city during the 1950s. Brad Pitt portrays a loving, but self-loathing father who tries to protect his children from the dangers of life. Jessica Chastain is his wife, who believes that a worthful existence can only be built through kindness and forgiveness. This means that the father follows the path of nature (instinct, self-concern, being tough) whereas the mother has more of a religious outlook on life (if you're good to others, you will lead a good life yourself). Amid that symbolical battle, young Jack (an impressive Hunter McCracken) looks for his place in this world. As he grows older, he ponders the existence of Evil, the role of God in the universe and all of man's ambiguous aspects. Even later in his life (then portrayed by Sean Penn) he's still musing about those questions.

That only would suffice for a good number of philosophy lectures (correct me if I'm wrong, PN), but Terry deemed it necessary to - in seemingly randomn manner - insert sequences about the origin of the world in between those already chronologically cut-up storylines. He shows us the mutation of cells; eruptions of vulcanos, jellyfish in the ocean and even some dinosaurs. The intention of this - I suppose - is that the Tree of Life is a concept that all life on earth can essentially be traced back to one primal element, as long as you go back far enough in time. Everything is intertwined and connected.

This whole fancy fair is as usual presented through stunning pictures and sequences in which humans only play a peripheral role. Malick cares little about his characters, but rather about the Ideas, Conflicts and Problems that are represented by those characters. The Tree of Life is about Man, not about men. And Malick asks a whole lot of questions about Man in this film. What's the true nature of Man? What exactly in Man's relationship with nature? How can God be interpreted? And if some things we see from God don't fit with our perspective of what God is, is God then bad by definition? And just what does that mean about Man's morality? Can we break free from our primeval instincts? And so on, and so on...

It's too bad that Malick doesn't succeed in connecting those profound questions with the story that he's telling. The images about the origin of the planet are visually spectacular, but also quite hollow and useless. Sean Penn gets a screen time of about 10 minutes and during that time, all he does is look tormented and the questions that the characters ask themselves don't really feel like they make sense in the characters development, but seem to be asked simply because Malick wants to ask them.

And there was a great potential story that lay hidden in The Tree of Life with a GREAT performance from Brad Pitt, arguably his best ever. Because we are told in the beginning of the film that Jack's brother dies at age 19, the entire episode of his childhood (almost 90 % of the film) has this sad, fateful side to it. Loss is a central theme in the film; pictured on the one hand by the mystical force of nature and on the other hand by the inevitable evanescence of life. The film would've been better if Malick had just focused entirely on Jack's childhood instead of zapping back and forth between that episode and the highly unnecessary and random cuts to dino's, vulcano's and Sean Penn.

This is the first time where I got actually annoyed rather than bewondered when watching a Malick film. There is too much that is trying to be told; too many pointless levels and too much spiritual nonsense, so that the film runs the risk of eventually being viewed as trifling and completely adrift. To me, the film just feels like a majestic, giant soap bubble.

And I'm a supporter of Malick's past films, because I don't rate any of them below
. But this time, Terry has struck out completely. I guess that some people will think of this film as a seminal achievement. Others - like myself - will think of it as not only Malick's worst film, but as a painfully bad film, especially considering the potentially great drama that could have been handled much better.


Malick cares little about his characters, but rather about the Ideas, Conflicts and Problems that are represented by those characters. The Tree of Life is about Man, not about men. And Malick asks a whole lot of questions about Man in this film.
A very interesting review. Even though you have rated it quite low, your review has spiked my interest in the movie. Thank You.

Great review. Now I'm seeing similarities between how this was perceived and how The Fountain was perceived, though I would say that Malick is more prone to being overtly vague

I think there's a good chance of you liking this, winter. I see from your top 10 list that you're a big fan of The Fountain, which indicates to me that you'll like (love?) this one.

We'll see. Some things like this strike me, some don't. Between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, I haven't been emotionally touched at all so...

Still enjoyed those films, but there was something to grab onto. I guess I need to review this myself to shed light on Fountain comparisons.

Haven't seen any of Malicks other stuff except Badlands. Still think this will be the first movie I shell out money to see in the theatre this year.

Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
I'm a little bit confused. The character eventually played by Sean Penn dies when he's 19? Does that mean that all the Sean Penn scenes are fantasy scenes?
It's what you learn after you know it all that counts. - John Wooden
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My bad. It's Jack's brother who dies. I see that in the review I just typed "Jack" instead of "Jack's brother".

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First of all, UNFORGIVABLE SPOILERS in this things, bro.

Just joshing. Fine work. What can I say, I find your 2/5 fascinating beyond compare, and I want to see this film even more now.

That only would suffice for a good number of philosophy lectures (correct me if I'm wrong, PN) . . .
Malick's favorite topic in both film and philosophy is Heidegger's notion of "Worldhood", which is extremely nebulous anyway you put it. To convey it with images and a semblance of story seems even harder, since it is already so hard to grasp the conception through language -- then again, I think there might be merit to this approach, since it is possible that Worldhood could only ever be fully captured in a non-linguistic way...

What you are saying sounds reasonable (just random to the point of alienating). But have you ever seen Zerkalo?

So yeah, I guess I'll just try to apply what strained understanding I have of Heidegger to this film and see if it yields anything more viable than total emotional and intellectual alienation a.k.a. bored to tears.

This is indeed part of the larger discussion about whether or not philosophy and art should become one -- i.e. whether or not art should or even can surpass its primary role of mimesis and actually REFLECT on the world instead of merely presenting it.

p.s. dinos lolwut
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Brodinski, who is the chick always in your avatar?!
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So yeah, I just found out the film isn't playing in PA anytime soon. Bummer. Massive bummer.

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It reminds me of a toilet paper on the trees
- Paula

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Your loss.

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^ used yr list

Sonofab*tch. July 8th is when it is wide released nationally. JULY. EIGHTH.

(also something looks open on June 24th, but that could be anything)

Palme d'Or Winner 'The Tree of Life' finally gets UK release date

The winner of the top prize at the Cannes film festival has finally got a UK release date.

Fox Searchlight announced they will distribute the Terence Malick opus ‘The Tree of Life’, which stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It’s slated for a July 8 2011 release.

The multi-generational tale of a man trying to come to terms with his complicated relationship with his father, whilst also questioning his faith and the meaning of life, controversially scooped the top prize at Cannes this year.

It had mixed reactions from critics, but still convinced judges it was more worthy than 'Le Havre', the entry from Finnish festival darling Aki Kaurismäki, and the acclaimed 'We Need To Talk About Kevin', directed by Brit Lynne Ramsay and starring John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton.

The film won the prize despite the reclusive habits of Malick, who took no part in any of the press events at the festival.

Icon had been in charge of distributing the film in the UK, but when the studio announced that it would open in the UK before its Cannes premiere, international distributors Fox Searchlight and Summit International stepped in and Icon lost the rights.

Quite why Icon tried to steal the thunder from the festival screening is still unclear, but when 'The Tree of Life' was awarded the Palme d'Or they must have been kicking themselves.

This was a wonderful review, and I shared the same thoughts, though my biggest complaint was that the film became a over-the-top reiteration of previous works, so when I was expecting some originality, I felt it was cheap repeat only this time by too much experimentation. (And that's coming from my mouth for god-sake!) It felt as if I was in an argument with someone who has a point, but to deliver the point they have to deliver the message with big words to make themselves sound somewhat more superior. Look, I understand the message, I understand the language, but the argument ultimately becomes a failure in the end to me. Almost like talking oneself into a corner. Glad I'm not the only one here.
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'?

-Stan Brakhage