Few American filmmakers are as alive to the splendor of the natural world as Terrence Malick, but even by his standards, “The Tree of Life” represents something extraordinary. The iconoclastic director’s long-awaited fifth feature is in many ways his simplest yet most challenging work, a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy’s 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth’s origins. Result is pure-grade art cinema destined primarily for the delectation of Malick partisans and adventurous arthouse-goers, but with its cast names and see-it-to-believe-it stature, this inescapably divisive picture could captivate the zeitgeist for a spell.
A magnum opus that’s been kicking around inside Malick’s head for decades and awaited by his fans for almost as long, the film will certainly invite even-more-vociferous-than-usual charges of pretension and overambition, criticisms that are admittedly not entirely without merit here. Taking the director’s elusive, elliptical style perhaps as far as it will go, “The Tree of Life” is nothing less than a hymn to the glory of creation, an exploratory, often mystifying 138-minute tone poem that will test any Malick non-fan’s patience for whispery voiceover and flights of lyrical abstraction.
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Critical response will be passionately split (judging by the noisy mixture of boos and applause at the Cannes press screening), even among those who share Malick’s poetic orientation and appreciate his willingness to place A-list stars and visual effects in service of unapologetically spiritual and philosophical concerns. Still others may find the picture underwhelming in light of its epic journey to the screen — a troubled six-year gestation period replete with casting woes and editing delays; the shuttering of U.S. distributor Apparition before Fox Searchlight swooped in; and a last-minute tussle over whether its U.K. release date would trump its world premiere in competition at Cannes.
And so it’s only fitting that “The Tree of Life” should demand a measure of patience. The same could of course be said of Malick’s four other features, all veiled parables of man’s fall from grace and the corruption of an irretrievable innocence. With his new film, Malick has essentially parted the veil. He has abandoned the oblique historical narratives of his previous two pictures, “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” to tell an intimate wisp of a story that allows him to address his cosmic concerns in the most direct, least compromised manner possible. Yet far from feeling slight, the film surprisingly emerges as Malick’s most emotionally accessible work since 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” so primal and recognizable are the childlike perceptions and feelings he puts onscreen.
An opening quotation from the book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”) lays the celestial groundwork as the film eases the viewer into the preadolescence of Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three boys in midcentury small-town Texas. The first of numerous narrators speaks of two possible paths through life: the way of nature, embodied by the boys’ stern taskmaster of a father (Brad Pitt), and the way of grace, represented by their sweet, nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain).
The early reels convey the arc of Jack’s life as a series of subjective impressions, leaping ahead to the pivotal moment when Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien receive word that one of Jack’s brothers has died at age 19, an occurrence that is neither lingered on nor really explained. Before long, Jack is a grown man (a weary-looking Sean Penn), seen roaming the executive offices of a Houston high-rise and speaking on the phone with his father, who has clearly not mellowed with age.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s continually mobile camera, occasionally using wide-angle lenses, prowls through these early scenes as though observing them from a side angle; the visual restlessness mirrors Jack’s own inner turmoil, echoed by the inchoate voices we hear in his head. Time and space themselves seem to destabilize, and the film, as though unable to abide the present any longer, retreats into the ancient past.
It’s at this point, roughly 20 minutes in, that “The Tree of Life” undergoes arguably the most extreme temporal shift in the history of cinema. Comparisons to “2001: A Space Odyssey” are perhaps intended, not least because Stanley Kubrick’s special-effects creator Douglas Trumbull served as a visual consultant on Malick’s eye-candy evocation of the dawn of time (conceived by several visual-effects houses but designed with minimal reliance on CGI). We observe a flurry of awe-inspiring images at astronomical, biological, macro- and microscopic levels: a nebula expanding in outer space; cells multiplying in a frenzy; a school of shimmering jellyfish; darkness illuminated by a volcanic eruption; a bubbling primordial ooze.
Viewers may not always be sure of what they’re looking at during this sequence, but that’s no hindrance to appreciating the sublime imagery or the rhapsodic force of the accompanying choral and orchestral tracks. Yet the director isn’t inclined to linger, not even on the stunning occasional glimpse of dinosaurs, whose presence on Earth is observed as matter-of-factly as the cataclysm that brings their chapter to a close.
Texas suburbia comes back into focus, and the film devotes its remaining 100 or so minutes to a sensitive portrait of Jack’s upbringing, rendered here as a sort of symphony with many movements, often set to Alexandre Desplat’s sometimes majestic, sometimes ominous score. As raggedly structured as this portion of the film is (five editors handled the disjunctive yet intuitive cutting), Malick couldn’t be more attuned to the personal joys, sorrows and insecurities of this boy’s life, and his tactile images seem suffused with a Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia even as they seek to deconstruct it.
From the tension that sets in whenever Jack’s father appears to the boys’ exhilarating sense of freedom as they run through DDT clouds billowing from a spray rig, scene after scene brims with intimate, tenderly observed details, while the rural locations enable the helmer’s signature shots of rustling grass and water-reflected sunlight, abetted by richly textured sound design. The camera whips through the family’s Craftsman-style house (lovingly appointed by Malick’s longtime production designer Jack Fisk) until it comes to seem like home.
The link between Jack’s story and the film’s prehistoric reverie is never made explicit, though its essential meaning could scarcely be plainer or more deeply felt. The rare film to urgently question, yet also accept, the presence of God in a fallen world, “Tree of Life” understands that every childhood is a creation story unto itself, and just as a new planet is formed by the elements, so an emerging soul is irrevocably shaped by the forces that nurture it.
No one exerts a more domineering influence in Jack’s life, or on the film itself, than his father. Played with iron-jawed intensity by Pitt, Mr. O’Brien is the very picture of intimidation — a strict, upright disciplinarian who, though not immune to affection, is not above using hugs and kisses as instruments of control. One moment, in which Jack considers a retaliatory act of violence, is both amusing and shockingly blunt. And yet Malick extends the father the same compassion he grants the mother, played with heartrending vulnerability by Chastain as a woman who strives to protect, defend and console her children at all times.
Young McCracken makes an outstanding screen debut, his eyes seeming to reflect a sad wisdom beyond his years; thesp captures Jack’s fear of his father as well as the disturbing ways in which he takes after him. As his younger brothers, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan are wonderfully authentic.
Penn’s Jack receives the least screen time of the three adult principals, and he figures into the film’s most abstruse, surreal passages, which frame him against a series of desert backdrops and make direct use of biblical imagery. In these moments, “The Tree of Life” seems to grope desperately, if movingly, for the sort of grand resolution its mysteries by definition cannot offer. But by that point it’s clear Malick, after five films over nearly 40 years, hasn’t given up his search for new ways of seeing truth and beauty — in life, or in cinema.