Don't expect linear storytelling from Terrence Malick. His rapturous last film, The New World, plunged viewers into first contact between English Puritan colonists and native American peoples without a road map, or a translator, or any idea on either side of the customs and culture of the other. (Read my review here.) Audiences who expected conventional storytelling were dumbfounded; there was no way in except to surrender to the strangeness—as the colonists and tribespeople themselves must have perceived it—and let the experience wash over you.
Malick's new film, The Tree of Life plunges us into seemingly more familiar terrain—growing up in suburban Middle America in the second half of the 20th century—and turns it into something strange and mysterious, a metaphor for the eternal search for grace and meaning in life. Given the enormity of this theme, the results are somewhat less rapturous, but there are still moments of blistering power, and images of heartbreaking beauty, even if the case for absolute surrender isn't quite as compelling this time.
The plot is birth, death, and everything in between, from the formation of the cosmos through the dinosaur age to modern American family life, ca. 1950s. Malick's impressionistic storytelling keeps us mesmerized in his best scenes, the intricately observed minutiae of family life—love and rage, guilt and intimidation, rivalry and solidarity—as a father (Brad Pitt) strives to teach his three sons goodness, manliness, and the ways of the world, in lessons that are often harsh. (Read more)
I agree with critics who say the movie is too long; I was ready to doze off whilst slogging through the primordial ooze with the dinosaurs. And I hated what I first perceived as the overtly Christian symbolism of the shall-we-gather-at-the-river waterfront finale. In fact, I sat down to write a much crankier review than the one that eventually came out.
What changed was the more I thought about the movie, the more fleeting glimpses of amazing and haunting cinematic moments started coming back to me. Moments unburdened by any kind of rational explanation or justification (or even narrative thrust), but that somehow sing with their own inner truth. Pretentious? Self-indulgent? Sure, but isn't that where art comes from? That's what they used to say about Fellini, and they were often right, but even at his most self-indulgent, he was often wonderful. And he was always worth watching.
There's a thoughtful, European quality to Malick's expressionistic, stream-of-consciousness storytelling. Not many American filmmakers are making this kind of symphonic tone poem, at least not on such an ardent and delirious scale. It doesn't always work; I still hate that self-conscious, stage-manged finale, even though the film seems less formally Christian and more non-denominationally spiritual on second thought. But you don't have to love every nanosecond to respect Malick's painstaking act of creation. And it seems unreasonable to complain endlessly about stilted, formulaic Hollywood moviemaking, and then turn around and call someone who dares to break out of the mold "pap." I'm just saying.