Terrence Malick returns with The Tree of Life
After a while Tree settles into a fairly conventional narrative groove, dissecting albeit in meandering, often forcedly "lyrical" fashion the travails of a middle-class Texas household whose patriarch is sternly demanding of his three young sons. Eldest Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually comes to hate this alternately affectionate and cruel father.
As the father, a solid Brad Pitt gets the best-defined part here, playing a man who invents arbitrary rules simply to punish petty transgressions. Yet he's no monster but a conflicted, resentful aspirant toward the American dream taking those frustrations out on his loved ones. The specificity of everyday tyranny, most often practiced at family meal times the movie's aesthetically simplest, most emotionally potent scenes suggest Malick is working through autobiographical demons here.
The Tree of Life is thus like The Great Santini or This Boy's Life meets Tarkovsky (or, worse, Tarsem); something relatably intimate housed in the most ornately overblown package imaginable. It's like those James Michener novels in which a simple soap opera is backgrounded by 300 pages of historical errata practically going back to the amoeba from which our protagonists descended. Only Malick, bless him, actually depicts the amoeba.
As a modern-day survivor of that household, Malick's career-reviving ally Sean Penn has little to do but look angst-ridden while wandering about various alien landscapes. The child actors are excellent. But Chastain, in an expansion of the Eternal Woman roles played by Miranda Otto in The Thin Red Line and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World, plays not a character but an abstract of ethereal, endlessly giving maternity, forever swanning about in gauzy sundresses, at one point so full of grace she literally floats in midair. I doubt Malick realizes he's put her on a traditional sexist pedestal that reduces while it exalts. She's a simple creature all love! while the menfolk get to be thorny and complicated.
Set in Waco but also shot in Rome, at Versailles, and in Saturn's orbit (trust me), The Tree of Life is so astonishingly self-important while so undernourished on some basic levels that it would be easy to dismiss as lofty bullshit. (Malick's soundtrack of Mahler, Smetana, Holst, Górecki, Berlioz, etc. only heightens his grandiosity.) Its Cannes premiere audience booed and cheered both factions right, to an extent.
Speaking for the middle ground, I'd say this is a cheeringly daft enterprise by turns extraordinary, masturbatory, and banal. Encouraging slightly loony poets to work on a grand scale is always a good thing, even if the results are this mixed. Malick goes way out on a limb, his attempted philosophical weight often nearly crashing the movie to the ground. But by a hair's breadth he stays on that branch, wobbling and flapping wings while most major studio-bankrolled American directors never think of climbing the tree in the first place.
THE TREE OF LIFE opens Fri/3 in San Francisco.