With only his fifth film in 38 years, here again is Terrence Malick, extreme partisan of The Big Picture. That The Tree of Life comes with an epigraph from the Book of Job seems almost like a joke at the expense of Malick’s appreciators: Oh, how we suffer and wonder and struggle to forgive.
The new film appears as a beautiful, mist-shrouded shipwreck. God knows it exudes determined dignity, as if having run aground somewhere along an uncharted course always was part of its plan. What else does God know? Let's ask His ventriloquist Malick, a narrator both omniscient and unreliable.
One way to watch The Tree of Life is to flatter our own aesthetic advancement, pretending it to be an inscrutable vernacular heirloom from some infant ancient culture. From Malick, we don't demand "story" per se; we extrapolate allegory and familiar archetype, and when so inspired, surf the curl of beauty toward transcendence. Whether it works is up to us, which is why he's such a genius and so irritating.
Some standard-seeming narrative events do transpire in The Tree of Life, presumably as recalled or imagined by a depressed Houston architect, in the form of Sean Penn, thinking back on his Waco childhood. But there is some confusion of perspective, perhaps resulting from a forgivable human tendency to see Texas as the center of the universe. Malick, technically a native of both places, goes at will from gazing up at glassy skyscrapers or a canopy of evergreens to quite literally looking down on creation. Suddenly and exhilaratingly adrift in a roiling cosmos, we're left to piece connections together: Oh, somebody important must've died, huh? Oh, that must be the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, huh? Oh, this is a film about an aggrieved postwar Texas family and also about dinosaurs, huh? Oh. Huh?
The human clan includes Brad Pitt as a woundedly authoritarian father, Jessica Chastain as an ethereally lovely mother, and various children -- most significantly Hunter McCracken, who has a good intense proto-Penn face, in that he looks like someone who'll grow up with no sense of humor. There is some consolation in the impeccable boyhood decor: that familiar dusky Americana, filled out with a certain midcentury-modern extravagance. It seems unrealistic given the family's apparent financial circumstances, but the pleasure Malick takes, like a dog rolling in something in the yard, is undeniable.
Meanwhile, cosmic billowing continues apace. This too is gorgeously tactile, and encumbering. With heavenly bodies whirling by in their great foreordained ellipses, people get elliptical too, reduced to philosophical abbreviations. They often speak in fragments, whispering prayerful voiceovers or exchanging thematically distilled, silence-padded dialogue. They've been tasked with acting out a grand opposition between selfish "nature" and selfless "grace." And as Malick gropes for correlation between the birth of Earth and the death of innocence, their fealty to him is poignant. (Pitt leading with a jutted lower lip and swooning over Bach is at least more persuasive than the dinosaurs -- digitally rendered, emotionally anthropomorphized, and therefore doubly false.)
It's not quite a dramatization, nor even a coherent philosophy, just apparently some ecstatic cross-cutting chronicle of primordial progress. A suspicion arises that the film's two core elements -- the Lone Star and the interstellar -- won't ever really illuminate each other any more than accidentally, in the way any two parts of any movie will, just by being in it together. For all its oddity and majesty, The Tree of Life forgoes real mystery.
It has things in common with 2001 -- that celestial scope, that auteurist tenacity, that one effects consultant guy -- but lacks the forebear's portentous, gravity-defying poetry. Malick's transitions seem too often like arbitrary, shrugging cutaways. On the other hand, Kubrick's setup paid off in silence and sociopathic artificial intelligence, whereas Malick clearly wants something warmer and more humane: the evolution not of violence but of pity. Well, OK, but that just means his truer and timelier rivalry will be with the more rigorous astronomical profundity of Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, a dazzling and devastating work of non-fiction.
Malick's most genuine intimacy is accomplished nonverbally, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camera frolicking among boys being boys, conspiring in their dreamy, weird, cruelty-tinged coming of age. Maybe a better way to watch The Tree of Life is to regress to whatever there was before the wanting of mystery and mindfulness and mediated dramatic shape. Might we surrender instead to the moody male pre-adolescent non logic of planets and fire and swarms of beasts and self-conscious symphonic grief? With a big validating plagal cadence, in what has been a rather agitated, requiem-intensive soundtrack, Malick finally delivers his characters to an island of forgiveness. The appreciators will get there too, eventually.