The world's most reclusive filmmaker has made the year's most ambitious and far-reaching film. It's Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and while it doesn't come together perfectly, it's got amazing ideas and contains some of the best filmmaking in memory.
The famously not-prolific Malick, making just the fifth film in his nearly 40-year career, has made his answer to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—a film scored with established classical music that starts literally at the beginning of time before settling into its primary plot and reaching an opaque, mystical conclusion that will have everyone arguing about its meaning.
The Tree of Life, which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last month, is mostly the story of a young man named Jack (Hunter McCracken as a chlld, Sean Penn as an adult) born and growing up in 1950s Texas with his two brothers and parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain).
The story is told in non-chronological order, so we learn early on that one of Jack's brothers dies, and we later see Penn sitting unhappily in a present-day ultra-modern skyscraper.
Themes quickly emerge, especially the battle between nature (the father) and grace (the mother). This is spelled out in Malick's trademark meditative voice-over narration; what you think of that may well determine your ultimate feelings on the movie.
But Malick's movie is as unconventional as unconventional gets. It also takes us back to the physical formation of the universe, depicting the Big Bang before we're shown a few minutes of dinosaurs, before eventually catching up to the 20th century.
Both sides of the film are rendered beautifully, whether in an original depiction of the Earth's beginnings, as well as a look at 1950s America that mostly avoids cliche.
Malick was clearly inspired by Kubrick, his brother in reclusiveness and many-years-between-films, even bringing Douglas Trumbull, the legendary special effects supervisor behind 2001, out of retirement to work on the Big Bang sequences.
The use of classical music, from the likes of Bach, Brahms and Mahler, is a nod to 2001, as well.
Pitt's performance is one of his better ones, but the real wonder is Chastain, of whom I had honestly never heard prior to this film. She's an idealized mother without being an "idealized mother," and nails it absolutely perfectly.
McCracken is also quite good as the son, although Penn's performance is far from his best—it's a virtually non-speaking role.
So what doesn't work? The movie's ending is a head-scratcher, not in the "Whoa, what was that?" 2001 sense, but rather in a "Huh, that's the best ending they could come up with?" sense.
I understand that it's difficult, in a movie coming from two radically different places, to end it in a way that does justice to both, but the route Malick chose to go is less than impressive.
Also, the film's theology is all over the place. I guess the family is supposed to be Catholic (They're seen in church at one point.), while if you've been to Hebrew school, you probably know "Tree of Life" as another name for the Torah.
And while there's an introductory quote from the Book of Job, The Tree of Life doesn't have anything to do with Judaism, although it does use a snippet of Israel's national anthem both in the trailer and the film itself.
Meanwhile, all of the film's beginning-of-the-world stuff takes Darwinism at face value.
Not everyone is going to like this movie. It's very long and slow, its story is told in about the least accessible way imaginable, and it's not even in 3-D.
But while it's not exactly perfect, The Tree of Life is a mature, thought-provoking and all-around beautiful work.
The Silver Screen Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: The Tree of Life
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Length: 2 hours 18 minutes