Writer-director Malick's highly-anticipated fifth feature opens like an experimental film, with an abstract series of sights and sounds giving us the following information: A couple (father Brad Pitt, mother Jessica Chastain) learns that their 19-year-old son has died. Years later, one of their two surviving sons has grown up to be a successful businessman (Sean Penn), still questioning the loss of his brother.
Before any kind of story settles in, Malick takes a sudden detour - riffing off of one of the mother's whispered voiceovers about whether God even noticed the boy's death - into a 2001-like meditation on the origin of the universe and the early millennia of Earth, up through the death of the dinosaurs. It's a stunning but completely far-out mystical journey that sent several audience members packing when I saw it.
If you can make it through this extended tangent, you'll find that eventually Malick returns to this family, sometime in the 1950s when all three brothers were alive and well, spending their childhood in Waco, Texas. (The film feels intensely personal at times, and I assume it's at least somewhat autobiographical; the press-shy Malick lived in Waco as a child.) For most of the rest of the movie, we're with the three boys as they experience their father's sternness, their mother's warmth, and the everyday cruelties of childhood.
Don't get too comfy, though: the last act of the film - I'm giving nothing away - gives us more of Malick's metaphysical, digital effects-laden ruminations on life, death, and afterlife.
Of the many snippets of poetic voiceover in The Tree of Life, towards the beginning we hear something about each of us having to choose either the way of nature, in which we only care about ourselves, or the way of grace, in which we only care about others. The parents at the center of the film represent the two paths: Pitt's serious, ultra-strict father and Chastain's spontaneous, forgiving mother. But your enjoyment of the film itself may depend on which of these paths you're on. In other words, the visual poetry that makes up the opening and closing portions of the movie will either entrance you or make you roll your eyes.
Malick has a background in philosophy, and this is a highly spiritual - even religious - film. Being non-spiritual myself, I admit that, while I am a big fan of Malick's work, even I was pushed to the edge by the pretentiousness of the voiceovers and the space odyssey scenes set to an operatic soundtrack. I get it: Malick is using these scenes to reflect on how insignificant our own lives are against the grand sweep of space and time. But it's an oft-quoted platitude that I'm not sure needed to be literalized cinematically.
Still, I can't dismiss these scenes because they, like the rest of The Tree of Life, are breathtaking to behold, though the earthbound, quietly emotional story of this Texas family is much more effective than Malick's ambitious "life, the universe, and everything" scenes, and I suspect a lot more people would enjoy this film if they only caught the middle of it. If I'm a Philistine for saying so, then so be it.
But The Tree of Life was designed to be haunting and thought-provoking, and I could go on for pages about it, so in this respect Malick has given us a gift: A challenging, visually beautiful, sometimes self-important, and definitely divisive work of art. As he remains one of only a handful of American directors with a truly unique style, we are lucky that he is still working. But in the end I still prefer his first two films - and his underrated The New World - over this grandiose spiritual quest.