The enigmatic writer/director has never made a better film than his first one, Badlands (with Sissy Spacek). It was a slice of life, yet with moments so startling that it felt disembodied. His next best work is The Thin Red Line, for much the same reason. The Tree of Life has a vivid sequence that recreates the Big Bang and early evolution (complete with dinosaurs). And yet, despite this "Dawn of Man"-like passage, the film feels more akin to Lars von Trier than Stanley Kubrick.
The Tree of Life takes place in Waco, Texas, Malick's childhood home, in the 1950s, and revolves around the daily family life of a cynical, self-loathing paterfamilias (Brad Pitt), who's commanding, sometimes cruelly so, with his three sons and his wife (Jessica Chastain, who resembles Spacek).
Malick's arty film is exquisitely designed by Jack Fisk (who's worked with Malick since Badlands), but his story is well-trod: It's about the post-war malaise of a country that didn't feel as good as it thought it should after winning a horrific war -- a malaise, it seems, that infected God-fearing rural folk as well as soulless urbanites.
I'm struggling to see Tree of Life as being something more than overdressed melodrama, and I just can't. It's been called difficult, but the most difficult part is sitting through it. Its subtext is easy to dissect, except for the parts that are anyone's guess, and Malick repeats his themes over and over. In some contemporary scenes, presented without context, and thus without resonance, Sean Penn plays Jack, the oldest son, as a middle-aged man, still struggling to get over his father and the death of his brother decades ago.
Life doesn't happen with oblique angles and an elegiac soundtrack. Only movies do. So this is a lifeless movie, a meditative essay more than a dramatic work. Malick's films have always been dreamlike, but his best ones were also grounded. Not so with this ethereal enterprise. If you're so inclined, you can join Malick in his struggle to reconcile the evidence of evolution with the desperate desire to embrace a God who administers life's suffering. The final scene, a walk on the beach, brings together past and present, living and dead, for one final ponderous reflection. And then, the silence.
The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Starts Fri., June 24. Manor