March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Terrence Malick's visually stunning 'Tree of Life' is audacious, aggravating, powerful and pretentious


Alternately powerful and pretentious, “The Tree of Life” is everything you love about Terrence
Malick and everything that drives you crazy about Terrence Malick in one
distinctively Malickian package.

If that name doesn’t mean anything to you, you probably
don’t want to read much further because if you’ve never been exposed to the
work of this fascinating/frustrating/innovative/infuriating director, “Tree” is
not the place to begin. Although Malick has only made five films since he
started in 1973 (a sixth was recently completed), that’s enough of a body of
work to inspire deep devotion in millions of movie lovers. Let other filmmakers
concentrate on plot, action and helping their actors win Oscars: Malick’s
pictures are driven by haunting moods and indelible images that combine into a
sort of cinematic poetry.

If you completely give yourself over to his signature style,
you will be seduced. If you resist, you’re likely to be bored to tears. (I
can’t think of Malick without recalling the unfortunate couple sitting in front
of me at the screening of Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” in 1998: “I thought this
was supposed to be a war movie!” the man hissed to his wife. “But it’s more
about grass blowing in the wind!”)

Pity the unwary ticket-buyer who thinks he or she is going
to see “the new Brad Pitt movie”: While Pitt is prominently featured, he
remains merely one piece in Malick’s provocative, perplexing jigsaw puzzle.

Unapologetically abstract from start to finish, “Tree” might
be his most audacious effort yet, a mosaic made up of domestic drama,
otherworldly visions and stunning depictions of the origins of the universe and
the beginnings of life on Earth. The rush of awe-inspiring imagery is
reminiscent of “Koyaanisqatsi.” Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki
offer up grand pictures of the rings of Saturn, the eye of Jupiter and galaxies
as works-in-progress. Whatever else you might say about Malick, he’s definitely
not making movies that are designed to be watched on iPods or smartphones.

“There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the
way of grace,” a voice informs us at the beginning of the film. “You have to
choose which one you’ll follow.”

Malick sees patterns, rhythms, beauty and violence in both.
Shots of the elongated shadows of children playing on a suburban street late in
the afternoon mirror the movements of a swarm of locusts swooping and sweeping
through an urban skyscape like a fluttering black-brown ribbon. Volcanic
eruptions are contrasted with the emotional explosions of anguished people,
unable to hold in their sorrow and fury any longer. Wounded dinosaurs cry out,
but nothing comes to assist them; humans angrily demand answers from God and
receive no reply.

That’s the simple part of Malick’s concept — taking in the
full scope of what he’s trying to say is considerably trickier. The backbone of
“Tree” is an intentionally incomplete portrait of the O’Brien family in the
Texas town of Waco. We seem to be seeing them sometime in the 1950s, although
nothing is ever specified: There’s apparently no TV in the home, and there are
no references to major news events, celebrities, songs or pop culture events to
help us nail down the exact era.

Mr. O’Brien (Pitt, who is outstanding in a difficult role)
is a disappointed, dispirited former musician who’s now an executive with a
crew-cut and a clear-cut take on life that he shares with his sons: “If you’re
good, people take advantage of you,” he warns. “You wanna succeed, you can’t be
too good.” His wife (Jessica Chastain), however, is the embodiment of goodness,
generosity and gentility, a woman who practically radiates kindly maternal

These are the two extremes pre-teen Jack (Hunter McCracken)
sees in his home. The father sets and enforces the rules, pushing Jack and his
brothers to be tougher, more conformist and less idealistic. The mother, in
contrast, seems to have drifted in from a fairy tale: No wonder Jack pictures
her in a Snow White-style glass coffin, or floating cheerfully in the breeze
like Glinda the Good Witch.

The O’Briens’ story is told in fits and starts, in and out
of order, the narrative sometimes racing ahead then backtracking. Malick seems
to be saying that many of our memories dwell in a realm outside of time, in
which emotional truth takes precedence over actual fact. It’s as if we’re
flipping through the pages of someone’s treasured photo album, filled with
undated snapshots, or looking at long-lost home movies made by people we’ll
never meet. We see so much, and yet we’re left with dozens of questions that
can’t be answered.

Interspersed throughout the film are brief sequences of a
now-grown Jack (Sean Penn), who seems restless and unsettled, still incapable
of putting his past in perspective. This is Malick’s most raggedy story thread,
though, suggesting a far more complex subplot that was trimmed down to its bare

There isn’t much dialogue, and much of what is heard (aside
from Pitt’s lines) is mumbled or whispered. It’s pointless to expect that “ah
ha!” moment in which everything falls into place: “Tree” is a mystery without a
solution, something closer to a meditation than it is to a drama. How do the
cataclysmic shake-ups in the cosmos tie in to the O’Briens’ problems? Malick
challenges his audience to create those connections.

For some viewers, this will be impenetrable and aggravating;
for others, it will be an experience worth contemplating and re-examining for
some time to come. Malick has never made kick-back-and-relax Saturday night
entertainment, and one thing everyone will agree on when it comes to “Tree” is that it's nobody’s
idea of escapist fun.

"The Tree of Life" is now playing at NCG Eastwood Cinemas.