Film Review: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's fifth film is possibly his most abstract, part dreamy childhood reverie and part gorgeously symphonic ode to the creation of the universe. It's breathtaking cinema, but incompletely tied together at best.

No matter how deep Terrence Malick loses himself in imagery, those vistas which have captivated from Badlands to The New World, he was normally able to anchor them at least fleetingly in some blooded human drama. In The Tree of Life, however, he comes closer than ever before to severing ties with story nearly completely. This leap into bold abstraction is as awe-inspiring as it is irksome—in other words, par for the course in terms of Malick's quixotic career.

The film flows like water, split into roughly four streams of intertwined imagery and narrative, all of them seemingly flowing from the consciousness of Jack (Sean Penn), an architect who we see mooning around the glass office towers of Houston, lost in reverie. This first stream is as uninvolving as anything Malick has ever shot, with a mournful Penn given little to do but wander sleepwalker-like and ponder. The second is some kind of waking dream for Jack, showing him wandering in spine-tinglingly beautiful desert landscapes, stepping through doorways lost in the middle of nowhere. The imagery sheets past in an arresting tide but nevertheless veers dangerously close to resembling some high-end luxury brand commercial, just as latter sections will recall The Fountain at its most ludicrous.

Brad Pitt (who so famously escaped that Darren Aronofsky folly at the last second) plays the dominant figure in the third stream, Jack's memories of childhood in a small Texas town during the 1950s. As Jack's father, credited only as Mr. O'Brien, Pitt patiently crafts one of the only human performances in this sometimes wispy film. He's a steely perfectionist hiding his miseries behind a manner that's simultaneously coldly remote and cloyingly protective. The other performance of note is young newcomer Hunter McCracken (revealing plenty with little more than his eyes), playing the young Jack as the most free-willed of the three O'Brien boys, whose resentment of his father's disciplinarian ways results in fiery eruptions.

In the thrumming negative spaces between Jack and his father, Malick creates a psychological depth absent from much of the rest of the film. There, he seems to understand something about the warring love between fathers and sons. By comparison, Jessica Chastain, lost in the role of beautiful and patient mother, is only allowed to waft about angelically. (In one of a couple of magic-realist touches, we see her literally floating beneath a tree like a dancer free from gravity.)

The fourth stream, which takes up a good section of the film's especially narrative-free first hour, is like little else that has ever been projected onto a movie screen. With a groundbreaking mixture of old-fashioned paint techniques and up-to-the-minute CGI that could have Spielberg and Cameron taking notes, Malick shows us the beginning of the universe. From roiling clouds of cosmic dust and meteors smashing into planets to dark waves crashing into blazing hot lava flows and even a curious moment with two dinosaurs in a quiet wooded creek bed, the film paints a beautiful flow of imagery that hints more than once at the divine. The Job quote that opens the film, the characters' narration which is always asking questions directed towards either a loved one or Supreme Being, and non-subtle echoes of a fall from grace twin a Biblical gloss into this scientific exploration. Although the argument can be made that Malick ventured down this path in order to show us that the convulsively beautiful dangers that build a human soul are equivalent to the forces that create the universe itself, the thematic thread is drawn so tight here it practically snaps.

Special effects aside, the town of Jack's childhood—its pre-war wood-frame houses and long, straight streets overhung with ancient trees—is the film's unforgettable center. This is a darkly glimmering Eden sprung equally from one of the stories in Ray Bradbury's October Country and the free-flowing memory-floods of Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki spins his camera through it in nearly endless loops, running after the O'Brien boys as they play and wrestle and wander. The soundtrack, which mixes Alexandre Desplat compositions with a soaring onslaught of Berlioz, Brahms, Holst and Mahler, rages as the camera leaps up trees (Has any film ever spent so much time lost in the leaves?) and looms behind characters as their free-floating voiceovers whisper like water.

If films are going to be pretentious bunk—and there is a very good chance that The Tree of Life falls squarely into that category—then let them at the very least look, sound and feel like this one does.