- The Tree of Life
- Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn
- Directed by Terrence Malick
- Rated PG-13
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Arriving in theaters direct from last month’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life ranks among the most insanely ambitious movies ever made, even as it tells what is fundamentally a small-scale, autobiographical story. Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps, has a film this unabashedly experimental received such a wide release: Malick has audaciously taken the details of his childhood in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s and placed them within the context of ... well, of the entire history of the universe, really. It’s both macro- and microscopic, at once impossibly grandiose and glancingly intimate. My only real complaint is that it didn’t turn out to be, as it first appeared, the greatest film of all time.
Structured more like a symphony than a conventional narrative, The Tree of Life opens with an impressionistic “movement” that introduces Sean Penn as a vaguely unhappy architect in the present who seems to be recalling his early years growing up with a martinet father (Brad Pitt) and an angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). The delivery of the news, apparently taking place in the ’60s, that one of his brothers has died triggers a second movement depicting a condensed rundown of everything that’s happened since the Big Bang, including a brief interlude featuring dinosaurs. The film then settles down back in the ’50s for a good while, as father and son (Hunter McCracken) repeatedly lock horns, before circling back to Penn for a coda that may well be taking place in the very distant future.
But no mere description can possibly convey the singular experience of watching The Tree of Life, which for its first hour-and-change takes a thrillingly fragmented approach to the idea of the memory play, with snippets of light, breath and motion bum-rushing Malick’s constantly mobile camera. By comparison, the second half, which introduces such recognizable dramatic devices as “scenes” and “dialogue,” threatens to reveal the tale’s conventional undergirding; strip away the whirligig direction and asteroid impacts and you essentially have a memoir not unlike, say, This Boy’s Life (which starred Robert De Niro and a young Leonardo DiCaprio). Still, give Malick tons of credit for literally shooting for the stars. He very nearly pulls it off.