Contender: ‘Tree of Life’

The Contenders 2011

Terrence Malick is one of a handful of American filmmakers with an unmistakable auteurial stamp: whispery, internal voice-over monologues meld with seemingly random, if exquisite, shots of nature to form a kind of ethereal narrative that defies established storytelling conventions.

For “Tree of Life,” which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, the writer-director has arguably tackled his most ambitious project to date: combining the personal with the cosmic he juxtaposes a coming-of-age story within a tight-knit, suburban-Texas family during the Eisenhower era with a meditation on the origins of the universe.

The nurturing mother, played by this year’s It Girl, Jessica Chastain, is said to represent grace, while the authoritarian father, limned by Brad Pitt, mirrors nature in all of its Darwinian manifestations. As usual in Malick’s films, much of the drama is driven by imagery and music, with the four-time, Oscar-nominated Emmanuel Lubezki’s floating camerawork and Alexandre Desplat’s score, with an assist from Bach, Berlioz, Brahms and Mahler, among several others, doing the heavy lifting.

And yet the film affords Pitt some of his most sensitive and acclaimed work, and Malick’s visionary tone poem has elicited high hosannas that have compared it favorably to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in all its metaphysical grandeur and head-scratching abstraction. But even if one isn’t a true believer, the film is considered one of the arthouse hits of the year, proving that you can have your cake and eat it too.

Release date: May 27
Fox Searchlight
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