The wonder, in the end, is not that Terrence Malick has taken three years to release his long-awaited fifth feature, The Tree of Life. No, pilgrims. Given Malick’s soaring ambition to create an ecstatic, impressionistic, epic cinematic tone poem that entwines the stories of one Texas family in the 1950s with nothing less than the creation of the universe, the wonder is this: How did the famously deliberate, contemplative filmmaker finally decide the film was finished? The Tree of Life is both luminously precise (the family part, crowned by Brad Pitt’s commanding performance as a disciplinarian but loving dad) and maddeningly without form and void (the spirituality-lite cosmos part, complete with the depiction of the Big Bang and dinosaurs). The latter is padded out with the kind of visual bravado and meditative nature-based photography that Malick devotees adore and the less enthralled see as an awful lot of shots of waving grass and rays of sunlight. I do not mean to dodge Judgment Day when I confess that I fall smack among the agnostic middle, awed but also doubting.
The heart of the story, in any case, rests with the O’Briens. Father (Pitt) has tamped down personal dreams, like other men of his era, to become a breadwinner for his wife and three sons. In Malick’s cosmology, Father represents the hard push of Nature. Celestially ethereal Mother (a lovely Jessica Chastain, who barely speaks, poor Mom, in anything but whispery voice-over) represents Grace. The oldest boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken, a riveting nonpro kid actor), bears the brunt of his father’s frustrations. Malick, Badlands master of temps perdu made tangible, captures the infinitesimal ways in which Jack becomes hard himself.
Jack becomes so inured that, in the movie’s least successful device, he grows up to be played by a dour Sean Penn. Still, Malick clings to the promise of grace: His vision of the afterlife is a dreamy beach, enhanced by an excellent playlist of fine classical music, and promising the peace that surpasses all understanding. Plus a beautiful sky. B+