A philosopher, a scientist and a theologian walk into a bar. Eight hours later, they stumble out with the script for The Tree of Life.
Viewers of Terrence Malick ’s long-awaited film may also be a bit wobbly when it’s over. It is an impressive, confounding achievement that calls to mind every drunken late-night debate that no one could articulate the next morning.
To the extent that The Tree of Life has a plot, it centers on the memories of Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), who looks wistfully out of high-rise windows as he recalls his childhood in Texas.
The oldest of three sons born to an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and a saintly mother (Jessica Chastain), Jack is caught between these two opposing personalities. The family’s trials, which include a premature death, lead to ruminations on faith, meaning and the ultimate significance of human existence.
Malick certainly can’t be accused of timidity in his approach to these issues. Characters wrestle with them in voiceover throughout the film, and one lengthy sequence involves nothing less than the creation and evolution of the universe (that’s the part you may have heard about with the dinosaurs).
This passage is literally breathtaking, a work of cinematic poetry that offers more insight into Malick ’s themes than any dialogue could hope to. If this man ever makes an IMAX nature documentary, I’ll be first in line.
The sections dealing with Jack’s childhood are as close to conventional as The Tree of Life gets, and the movie deflates a little whenever it comes back down to earth.
While Hunter McCracken is very good as the young Jack, it’s Pitt’s performance that makes an impact. His character is a bully whose family can barely breathe in his presence, but he is also a sensitive man filled with love and regret. Just when it’s tempting to write him off as a horrible person, he’ll have a moment of such tender clarity, it will completely shift your perspective.
While the other characters are ill-defined shadows of Jack’s memories (the mother even floats at one point), his father seems like a true, solid human being. Everyone else is minimized when he’s around, which seems to be Malick ’s intent.
Of course, figuring out Malick ’s intent is what makes The Tree of Life such a mind-flipping experience. His musings are often pretentious and never reach any particular conclusion, but that’s part of what makes the film so fascinating. Watching it is an invigorating, unforgettable experience — even if it makes you dizzy.
The Tree of Life: 3 out of 4 stars
Rated PG-13 Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes