Terrence Malick is working with materials that are not available to any other artist on Earth, because he is drawing directly from his brain, heart, and soul. The Tree of Life continues his solitary journey toward enlightenment and/or understanding and/or reconciliation, as he wrestles with spirituality, pain, memory, grief, family, fathers, mothers, brothers, and other big questions of life.
And if you don't want to go along with him on his journey, if you find his explorations to be pretentious or tedious, why, that's perfectly fine. Malick frames his arguments in a way that makes sense to him. He began moving in this direction with Badlands, his directorial debut, in which the plot moved forward like a mighty river, so that digressions into the personalities of Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) appeared to be merely eddies, swept along with the narrative flow that eventually emptied into the titular wide open spaces of the South Dakota.
Days of Heaven marked a more dramatic turn, when Malick was able to take full advantage of the American auteurist movement to chip away at the narrative until, after months and months of editing, all that was left was visual poetry wrapped around the barest minimum of text.
When he returned to the director's chair after 20 years away from filmmaking and began work on his version of James Jones' The Thin Red Line, his reputation had grown, in absentia, to outlandish proportions. Major stars fought for cameos; outrageous stories of an exceedingly slow pace of production leaked. The film itself was a representation of a war picture, bearing resemblance to the genre only in the uniforms and weaponry. Otherwise, it was a further step away from a straightforward narrative, though it did not plunge as close to silent film territory as Days of Heaven.
The New World was a near-total divorce from the ideal of a three-act structure; the digressions and meditations became the focal point, leading to an elusive, maddening experience for many. Malick himself couldn't seem to decide what the finished picture should be, but that, in itself, reflects the underlying themes of The New World, the constant shifting between memories of the past, the realities of the present, and the possibilities of the future. Can we divide our consciousness neatly between the three? Or does it all flow together into one unified whole?
The Tree of Life adds to those ideas by examining the causes and effects of death. It's Malick's most ambitious picture: he's encompassing the entirety of life, not only the existence of humanity but what came before. Where does the past end, and the present begin? How much influence does the future have upon our current existence? Does anyone really lead a linear life from beginning to end, with no pausing, as though it were a suspense thriller, or a theatrical drama, or a fantasy epic?
The scenes that are most readily comprehensible are the ones featuring Brad Pitt as a stern father of three young boys. He's a firm disciplinarian, but not entirely unloving. He's willing to be physically affectionate with his sons, which shows him to be a modern, progressive parent in the setting of a small town in Texas in the 1950s. Yet he is strict, and he is prone to violent outbursts, and he tends to terrorize his family without realizing it.
Jessica Chastain plays his wife, a supportive partner who holds her tongue. She's quick to embrace her boys, and support them no matter what, and give them everything they need, and back them, when needed, against her husband. She is the glue that holds the family together, even as hubby threatens to tear it apart.
The boys are typical boys, roughhousing and getting into, and out of, mischief with aplomb. Sean Penn plays one of them as an adult, brooding and remembering as he works and walks and telephones and thinks some more and walks some more in and out of a skyscraper prison in downtown Houston, Texas.
More than that I cannot say. Like his last three films, The Tree of Life compels multiple viewings, not in the hope of "understanding" fully, or deciphering the plot, or uncovering the relationship between man, nature, and the cosmos -- and those CGI dinosaurs - but in the promise of sharing the journey of one man as he stretches toward the fullest artistic expression possible in the cinematic form.
The Tree of Life is a towering achievement, and stands head and shoulders above every other film I've seen this year.
The Tree of Life is slowly rolling out in limited release throughout the U.S. today, expanding to Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. Check the official site for more information and release dates.