work of genius and pretientious twaddle - and by some as both - Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is certainly a film of amazing ambition, cinematic brilliance, poetic storytelling, and yes, a self-indulgent exhibition, at times, of visual cliche. I can only think of one movie in recent memory that comes close to Malick's intent to use film to create an ecstatic, religious meditation on the meaning of existence - Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful.
Existence is summed up in this film by Jack - the main character - who is played by Sean Penn as an adult (whose context is unfortunately stripped a bit too bare) and by the marvelous newcomer Hunter McCracken as a young boy. In fact, all the three young boys - a band of brothers being raised by an organ-playing, electrical plant worker in the 1950's south (Brad Pitt) and his waiflike but devoted wife (Jessica Chastain) - are wonderful, and their horseplay and affection is an amazing recreation of the freedom and wonder of childhood. In many ways I could have thoroughly enjoyed this movie for the family dynamic exposed in between the big notable scenes of galaxies forming and ghosts assembling on the beach, and done without all the big, controversial effects.
Except that Malick is after something else, here - not so much story as poetry, and to do so, he needs to pepper this movie with big spiritual themes. The stated themes of nature and grace, of course, but also the conflict between water and glass (water, which moves with the grace of nature, and glass, which both separates us, freezes us in time, and allows us to see through). It seems that has we have grown up from the tree-filled back-yards of our 1950's youth, when we would frolic in the fumes of DDT or on the shores of ancient lakes, we have been encased in more and more glass - not only have the windows in the houses gotten larger and more sleek, we work in an urban world of glass towers where a single tree is a rarity. There is also the implication that our human dynamics were set down long ago as part of the course of nature. The pose of the two dinosaurs who appear on a stream - one holding down the neck of the other, who is lying disabled - mirrors the pose of the father when he grabs the mother, holding her tight until all the fight leaves her body. This is risky but powerful stuff, the kind that can take your breath away.
At the same time, there's that beach scene, with all the dredged up religious symbolism. I appreciate that Malick is working in a religious tradition (he sites the trials of Job throughout the film). But the movie is most ecstatic, in my opinion, when he leaves traditional religious symbolism behind and delves more deeply into his own personal eye: the shots of a streetlight on the family lawn, or the impressions of a baby looking out the window at his mother. The cumulative effect is like that "Star Trek" episode where Picard lives an entire life in a few short minutes: we get to experience, in the memory of Jack, the particular time and place of growing up in a particular house on a certain street in a specific southern town: a town with tensions between races, with wide lakes and open fields for boys to play in, with a certain house that itself is like a character stitched into memory and now passed away like Jack's beloved brother or his other family. It is an almost Faulknerian sense of time and place and Malick captures it with brilliant emotion and love.
We also get to experience those very specific people - the father (Pitt here gives perhaps his best performance) and the mother, their specific conflict and how that turmoil, the yin and yang of life, passes down through the generations. Their complexities - the love and hate tied up together, the resentment and blessedness - are far far from the black and white characters of our summer comic fare and the kind of human portrait that cinema used to be so much better at.
Could Malick have used a less indulgent sensibility, a better understanding of the adult Jack and the feelings that drive him, and a more thought out ending? Certainly. But then, it's hard to end a story about existence - and we might not have gotten a film as brilliant as this one is.