By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is ponderous and perplexing, a somberly audacious film to make viewers swoon or snore, take your pick. It is defiantly opaque, a free-form meditation on nature and nurture across millennia with a tinge of biblical grace.
What does it all mean? Perhaps only Malick knows for sure, and this famously reclusive auteur never tells. He grew up in Texas, so the story line of a rigid father (Brad Pitt) and submissive mother (Jessica Chastain) raising three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas, may be a touch of autobiography. The eldest son grows up in a mostly wordless subplot, with Sean Penn wandering depressed through a modern metropolis. Maybe that's why Malick lies low.
How dinosaurs fit into these taciturn lives is where Malick presents his genius theme: that instincts making these people miserable and redeemable began at the dawn of time.
The most linear sequence in The Tree of Life is Malick's dazzling conception of how life began on Earth, first as a swirling nebula, then a cosmic collision — a world being forged and tempered to the sounds of a heavenly choir. Seriously, it is one of the most astonishing passages I've ever seen in a movie. And as confusing as its presence may seem, The Tree of Life becomes less inscrutable for it.
Malick goes into the primordial ooze, showing molecules and cells building, combining. Something like a prehistoric fish evolves into a dino-seal first setting flippers on land. Flippers become arms and legs, and with one paw swipe, Malick declares survival is reserved for the fittest like Pitt's character and weaklings like the children for whom compassion is shown, as the mother does.
At least that's what I came away with from The Tree of Life. Oh, and a heavy-handed message that regrets of the father are passed to the son. As Malick's movie becomes understandable, its scant wisdom is exposed by Emmanuel Lubezki's exceptional camera work. Penn's scenes become superfluous, and the Waco segments seem dramatically truncated. The dinosaurs don't show up again.
The Tree of Life settles into memory as a movie of marvelous visual moments: children chasing a DDT truck to play in fumes nobody realized were toxic, the mother's silhouette while hanging clothes to dry, the father ignoring a stranger having a seizure, a flock of birds forming an undulating Rorschach inkblot test in the sky. And, of course, Malick's transcendent Big Bang theory.
There may be a masterpiece here as some reviewers claim, somewhere beneath the puzzlement and beyond the patience of what I'm guessing will be a lot of moviegoers. At least in that regard, the film's comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey — which Malick courts throughout — could wind up having merit. Few could figure out in 1968 what Stanley Kubrick was doing, either. Even if The Tree of Life fades to obscurity, it's fascinating to watch Malick err on the side of ambition.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.