Terrence Malick films are either maddeningly sublime or simply maddening.
His latest, The Tree of Life, a meditation on the mysteries of the universe, would cry out for a Monty Python self-importance-puncturing joke if it weren't filled with some wonderful moments. And then, of course, the director never lets humor intrude in his works anyway. It is only Malick's fifth feature in 38 years; so the stakes and expectations for one of his films are always high.
Starting in the present day with Jack (Sean Penn), an architect, the setting soon switches to the past: 1950s Texas, when Jack was a boy. His parents — known only as Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) — seem on the surface to be relatively happy. For the most part, though, the father is frustrated by his life, and at times he takes it out on his family.
Jack (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken) grows up uneasily with his younger brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan). Although not an ideal childhood, his existence is pleasant enough. But like most people, Jack has conflicted feelings about his youth. When R.L. dies at 19, it leaves sorrow and a hole in Jack's life.
This prompts a long, almost hallucinatory passage in the film — from seemingly the creation of life itself through the dinosaurs, and eventually reaching Texas in the 1950s, where a child is born.
The Tree of Life is an act of a real artist's imagination. What it all means might never be fully explained — or maybe isn't supposed to be — but Malick's filmmaking is so visually captivating that it makes the mystery more mysterious.
The Tree of Life retails for $39.99 for a Blu-ray-DVD combo.