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The Tree of Life

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.