This is exactly the sort of picture one might expect from a reclusive filmmaker who’s been told for years he’s a great artist and has come to believe it. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is a super-pretentious stab at addressing the most fundamental issues of existence while coming to grips with its maker’s own personal demons. But despite the title, for the most part it’s a pretty deadly affair.
To be sure, the picture does rouse itself sporadically in its small-scaled, presumably semi-autobiographical portrait of the life of the O’Brien family in 1950s Texas. Three young boys—the oldest being Jack (Hunter McCracken)—experience a childhood that veers between joyful and terrifying under the influence of two very different parents, their stern, demanding father (Brad Pitt) and sweet, supportive mother (Jessica Chastain). The former, a man bitter over never realizing his ambitions, can be loving, but more often he’s rigid and controlling, and sometimes violent. The mother, by contrast, is the very model of unconditional love, and joins her sons in gamboling about in the neighborhood’s tall grass (a visual trademark of Malick’s as much as smoke is for Ridley Scott, though a more “meaningful” one).
This portion of the picture has evocative and affecting moments, mostly involving the boys at play. A fleeting glimpse of the local kids running in the swirl of spray from a DDT truck, a sequence at the local swimming pool that captures the era perfectly, and another of Jack leading the boys in a rocket experiment involving a frog all have the loose, uninhibited feel of a seventies film. And young McCracken is entirely convincing as a boy trying to figure things out within a sea of conflicting signals, with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan equally genuine as his younger siblings.
Had Malick concentrated on this simple story, he might have fashioned a poignant, insightful domestic drama. But he’s after much bigger fish. He struggles to tie the family’s tale to the most existential issues, presenting it as a microcosm of the eternal macro struggle between good and evil, or—as it’s presented in a prologue that begins with a quotation from the Book of Job and emphasizes two possible paths in life—the way of nature and that of grace (or, if you will, the materialism represented by Pitt’s grasping father and the spirituality symbolized by the open-hearted mother). In other words, the theme is Malick’s usual one of the inevitable corruption of pristine innocence by worldly ambitions and mundane concerns.
In this case that affords Malick the opportunity to take us back to the creation of the universe, represented by effects shots of swirling nebulae and cellular forms, as well as CGI sequences, mostly fleeting but a few more extended, of dinosaurs foraging and fighting. And all of this is tied to the O’Brien family’s story, in Malick’s mind at least, not just in juxtapositions (a clash between dinosaurs implicitly linked to the father’s later assault on his wife—perhaps a nod to the famous bone-to-spaceship shot of “2001”) but via periodic shots of a gloomy grown Jack (Sean Penn) recollecting past tragedies—including, as we’re shown elliptically, the death of one of his brothers—and trying to reconnect with his father.
That theme of reconciliation and redemption culminates in one of Malick’s most egregiously derivative choices—a dreamlike desert reunion of the characters that clearly recalls the finale of Fellini’s “8 ½.” In this case, however, instead of Nino Rota’s carnival score, we get more of the portentous religious music that Alexandre Desplat’s original themes alternate with. Presumably this is meant to signify Jack’s ultimate embrace of the way of grace, but the symbolism frankly feels tired.
Pitt and Chastain adapt themselves comfortably to Malick’s vision, the former radiating a pugnacious air by perpetually jutting out his jaw and the latter providing strong contrast; but Penn seems at a loss as the grown Jack, moping about like a character from a bad Antonioni rip-off. The crew have likewise done yeoman service to the writer-director, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid camerawork emulating a seventies feel and even the effects artists doing a first-rate job.
But ultimately “The Tree of Life” comes across as a ponderous act of cinematic overreach, at once abstruse and obvious. It represents the same sort of strained effort at universal significance that Darren Aronofsky attempted so disastrously in “The Fountain.” It will nonetheless have its admirers, since there are those for whom Malick can do no wrong. But unless you’re one of them, be forewarned.