Terrence Malick didn't invent the long-form cinematic tone poem, but the quixotic filmmaker has produced so many memorable visions using that style that he might as well have patented it. His short but fabled filmography is replete with "stolen moments" in which, for instance, the camera gazes at a jackrabbit or catches the protagonist in an unnatural pose — little bits of visual business that ostensibly have little to do with the story at hand, yet tell us volumes about the characters and the world they inhabit.
The Tree of Life has an unusual amount of Malick's trademark oblique visual cues, so many that at times they threaten to swamp the slender narrative. The scenario could be boiled down to three sentences: The O'Briens, a middle-class family in 1950s Texas, have three sons who grow up chafing under the influence of their strict father, played by Brad Pitt, yet nurtured by their mother (Jessica Chastain). One son, Jack (Sean Penn), matures into a restless, dissatisfied businessman. And life goes on. That third plot point is the kicker, an open-ended invitation for the former philosophy professor to show his hand.
If you're only going to make five movies in 38 years, you'd better choose your stories carefully. Malick is universally admired and respected not only for his organically composed mise-en-scene but for his choice of material. His first feature, Badlands (1973), is loosely based on the real-life career of serial killer Charles Starkweather. Days of Heaven (1978), Malick's masterpiece, examines the era of America's Manifest Destiny through a love triangle among migrant farm workers. Only The Thin Red Line (1998) is a true literary adaptation, from James Jones' novel of World War II combat in the Pacific. The lushly poetic The New World (2005) takes off from the legendary romance of John Smith and Pocahontas in 17th-century Virginia. All four are period pieces with a vivid historical foreground, populated by ordinary Americans in distress.
The Tree of Life fits the mold but allows itself plenty of room for deep-dish musings on the meaning of life, those dreamy, subjective visual excursions that make every Malick film notable — but which also run the risk of gilding the lily. The filmmaker successfully skirted the pretentiousness danger zone in The New World, but the latest film's first and third movements — lengthy cutaways to planets exploding in distant galaxies, trees waving in the breeze, desert landscapes, jellyfish, bubbling volcanoes, etc., sandwiching a middle section devoted to the O'Briens' stressful small-town home life, overlaid with Malick-brand voiceover narration by one or more of the characters — may be twisting the philo knob a notch too far. Some of it works, some of it makes us wince. Allegories are slippery and difficult to manage, even for master filmmakers. If the director had released a new movie every two years instead of every seven or eight, we probably would have tired of these shenanigans long ago.
In the strong middle third, Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien go about the task of raising their three sons and imparting life lessons. Dad, an industrial engineer, embodies the ethos of hard work, playing by the rules, and perseverance, but there's a lingering resentment in his tone. When he carefully points out to eldest son Jack (movingly played by Hunter McCracken) the family's property line — which Jack and his brothers must not cross — Dad can't resist muttering under his breath that the next-door neighbor inherited his money. None of that for him and his boys. Their lives are to be a product of their competitive "fierce will" and nothing else.
Dad reveres the European classical music of Brahms, J.S. Bach, Smetana, and Couperin. In fact his scratchy LPs seem to be the family's main cultural touchstone; there's no TV or radio (imagine the Fifties without Elvis Presley). Mom, the healing force, is all about forgiveness and fluidity while Dad is rigid and militaristic, intent on discipline. Jack's younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler), who inherited his mother's artistic bent, learns guitar and basks in her approval, leaving Jack to brood. Meanwhile, in a wonderfully impressionistic swirl of events and inflections, the boys awaken to the rhythms of small-town life. Their street looks familiar to us — it could well be the same neighborhood where Holly Sargis lived in Badlands, twirling her baton in the twilight, waiting for lonesome Kit Carruthers to steal her away.
As intoned in voiceover, two paths are available to the kids: the way of nature and the way of grace. Lessons abound. The boys recoil from the sight of a disabled man on the street. "Can it happen to anyone?" A family pet dies. Jack and his friends enact manhood rituals while just messing around. All by himself one afternoon, Jack breaks into a neighbor woman's house while she is out and steals her slip. The kids go swimming on hot summer days. The camera tags along joyously and dialogue is minimal. Nothing really happens except the shifting of the Earth and the playing out of individual destinies. Malick is at his best in these seemingly mundane moments, pausing occasionally to have us stare up into the trees the same way Pocahontas did, long ago. The childhood of Jack and his brothers makes most movies' depictions of youth seem stagey and artificial.
All the while, Malick has his eyes fixed on the stars, no more self-consciously than in his earlier films but certainly more intrusively. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is appropriately miraculous, as are the special visual effects by former Stanley Kubrick collaborator Douglas Trumbull — although the dinosaur scene looks as if it's in the wrong movie. There are other uncomfortable echoes, notably of Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi series of heavy-handed environmental spectacles. We get the feeling that Malick has somehow "gotten religion," and that's an odd feeling indeed.
To put it plainly, The Tree of Life is the most pretentiously "philosophical" film Malick has made. This might be the right time to revoke all those passes we've been issuing to him over the years. Badlands was a revelation, Days of Heaven was magnificent, The Thin Red Line uneven, The New World exasperating but beautiful. Malick can't help thinking "big." He strives for stream-of-consciousness effect and largely succeeds, but some streams are more worth rafting on than others.