Framed as a movie about a Texas family in the mid-1950s, with Brad Pitt as its patriarch, it's really a cinematic hit list of metaphysical imponderables complete with vast, gleaming re-creations of the birth and death of the cosmos, solar nebulae, dinosaurs, protozoa, and more flowing magma than you can shake a stick at.
By coupling all this primeval hoo-ha with the story of a troubled family, Malick is attempting to demonstrate the oneness of the universe, I suppose, but never has a human drama seemed punier in the vast scheme of things. You can't blame the family, exactly. It's just about impossible not to get upstaged by a solar nebula.
The film begins with a quote from the Book of Job – always a tip-off that deep think lies ahead. Other tip-offs: Malick uses swatches of scores from such composers as Berlioz, Ligeti, Brahms, Mahler, Górecki, and Holst.
Gradually the movie, the part that isn't intergalactic anyway, coalesces around the drama of the eldest of the three O'Brien boys, Jack (Hunter McCracken), who is inexorably deformed by his father's martinet ways. (Sean Penn, looking lost, plays the adult Jack, now a Houston architect, in a series of mostly wordless scenes as he wanders through gleaming office towers and desertscapes.)
Jack's mother (Jessica Chastain) is as ethereal as her husband is rock-ribbed. (Pitt, who is rather good in the film, seems to have retained his jutting chin from "Inglourious Basterds.") She represents idealized femininity in this neo-Wild West setting. Her belief is that the only way to be happy is to love, and yet the death of the middle son, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) is a defining moment for her – for everyone in the family. Is it random cruelty of the gods? Punishment? Chance?
People like to describe Malick's movies as symphonic structures that dispense with the normal logic of dramatic development, and there's some truth to this. But it's also true that Malick has never been adept at straightforward exposition. For a movie that is supposed to be so intuitive and avant-garde, "The Tree of Life" nevertheless relies a lot on Psych 1A tropes. The relationship between Jack and his father is textbook Freud. The film is light as a feather and as heavy as a sandbag.
This is Malick's fifth movie since "Badlands," his first and best, back in 1973. He likes to work slow. "The Tree of Life" was filmed three years ago. Five editors are listed in the credits. Of such things are mystiques created, at least in Hollywood, where taking your own sweet time for the sake of "art" is tantamount to heresy – or deification.
With all this mythmaking going for him, Malick has always, for me, been a mixed bag. He has a singular way of seeing – poeticized yet rigorous, as if everything was being looked at for the first time. (The great cinematography in "The Tree of Life" is by Emmanuel Lubezki.) His films are shot through with a haunting fatalism.
What he lacks is the storyteller's gift. Much has been made of how he has rewritten the language of cinema, but I don't think he's rewritten the rules so much as he's skirted them. In film after film, his characters express their inner longings, their own true selves, in somber voice-over narration that is invariably highfalutin. Don't Malick's people ever muse about, say, taking out the garbage, or going out for a burger?
With Malick, everything is ultimately about the essences, about finalities, and although this may have philosophic heft, it's rough on audiences. It's also something of a sham. Nonstop seriousness doesn't tell us much about the true nature of seriousness. For that, you also need the leavening of levity, of the mundane. Malick is often wonderful around the edges of a scene but he can't accomplish much in the "normal" range.
There is something essentially inhuman about his cinematic approach, as if people only existed as philosophical conceits. Perhaps that's why, despite its many sorrowful passages, "The Tree of Life" never really grabbed hold of me as a work of emotional intelligence. It's a phenomenal artwork but, for all its solar flares, it's cold to the touch. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some thematic material.)