Terrence Malick has always had a troubled history with movies. Going back to his first feature, 1973's Badlands, detail, imagery, and ruminative storytelling have coexisted — sometimes peacefully, other times not so much. There's an existential pull between Malick and his movies, one that he's never quite got a full grasp on, not even in his best films.
Even after inadvertently authoring a genre (Days of Heaven became synonymous with long-delayed, over-budget works of art that bomb) and totally misfiring on his last film (2005's The New World), Malick continues to make Big Statement movies loaded with ideas, idealism, and pretension. His latest, The Tree of Life, delivers all of this and more. It's Malick's best and most poetic movie — a flawed but totally mesmerizing film that tells the story of a God-fearing, small-town family in the '50s and the three boys who come of age under oppressive and emotionally distant dad Brad Pitt.
The opening meditative scenes are filled with Malick's usual signposts: narration, biblical allusions, zen-like tranquility, and the duality of flesh and spirit. Then mom Jessica Chastain gets word that one of her kids has died. Stages of grief, shame, and regret give way to a flash-forward to one of the boys (played by Sean Penn), all grown up and reflecting on his brother's death all those years ago.
There are also flashbacks to the beginning of life itself. In what will undoubtedly become The Tree of Life's most talked-about sequences, Malick (who also wrote the movie) frames long scenes of the cosmos to classical music. Then he throws in some rivers and plants and dinosaurs. If you've ever wondered what audiences were thinking the first time they saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, this probably comes pretty close with its open-ended splendor and wordless beauty that recall Kubrick's mind-blowing Dawn of Man and Star Child chapters.
It can all seem like a heavy-handed way of depicting a grieving 20th-century family and the effects of death. And it is. But Malick has never done things in moderation. The Tree of Life runs almost 140 minutes, and every second plays like a labor of love. Even though you can say it about most of his movies, this is Malick's most personal, impressionistic work.
He purposely leaves much vague here: Pitt's job (we know he is a white-collar plant worker, occasionally invents stuff, and is a failed musician), which boy dies, how he dies, characters' names ... hell, I'm not even sure which kid Penn is supposed to be. Still, The Tree of Life is a beautiful rumination on life and death that occasionally gets stuck in Malick's web of Big Statements. Questions of faith and fate run through the movie as he wrestles with mortality. Or maybe it's his creativity. There's lots of wasted talent and shaky idealism scattered in Malick's films. This imperfect but spellbinding one is the culmination of his nearly 40 anguished years as a filmmaker.