Terrence Malick is still making poetry in that most prosaic of worlds, the movies. But is there a place for the director of Days of Heaven and The New World in today's high-def, literal, ultra-realistic cinema? Judging from his ambitious, cryptic and incredibly indulgent The Tree of Life — sort of an inside-his-head essay on faith, creation, love and family — the answer is "No."
Glibly put, this challenging time-skipping rumination is the big-screen equivalent of watching that Tree grow.
Disembodied voices narrate, the camera cuts from close-ups of faces to endless peeks into the sunlit sky, "where God lives," and the trees blocking it. Blurred light in a dark void suggests "creation," and digital dinosaurs have moments of weakness and compassion. And if all this makes perfect sense to you, your name must be Terrence Malick.
In the present day, Jack (Sean Penn) ponders the after-effects of childhood tragedy and his love-hate relationship with his smart, stern and temperamental dad (Brad Pitt). And in that childhood, we see that father's impact on his three boys-being-boys, especially on the oldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken).
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Names aren't freely given and we must work out relationships on our own, simply through the visuals. Jessica Chastain plays the boys' nurturing mom, someone Jack wants to protect from his testy, dictatorial dad. Pitt is quite good as a sometimes loving crew-cut bully, a no-nonsense patriarch with an artistic side — he is a frustrated musician (church organist). Business is just another thing Mr. O'Brien, an engineer, is bitter about.
"The world lives by trickery," he lectures the lads as he hectors them over their chores. "You want to succeed, you can't be too good."
The young Jack sees his father's cruelty, sees his Waco, Texas, neighborhood pal horribly scarred by a house fire and ponders the nature of God.
"Lord, why? Where were you? Who are we to you?"
Malick loses himself in reveries, shots of canyons, deserts, beaches and cityscapes set to familiar pieces of classical music (Holst, Smetana, Bach). He visualizes cosmic creation when he isn't showing us random moments from childhood — boys tormenting animals, testing each other on trust, bravery and the like.
Despite a maddening incoherence, a feeling that much that was needed to make sense of it all was left on the cutting room floor, there are times when The Tree of Life seems to loosely fit together in one's head the way it might in Malick's. But those moments are rare. And Malick's style — wide vistas and extreme close-ups strung together by interior monologues built on non-sequiturs — will challenge even the most ardent Malick fan to admire the emperor's new clothes this time.