Enthralling but only sporadically engaging, the new film by the American maestro Malick (it's only his fourth since his debut Badlands, almost 40 years ago) is an ambitious but disappointing work.
It seeks - see the title and sequences depicting both creation and an afterlife - to be about nothing less than the entire scope of human existence, and to say that it fails is to miss the point, really. The film is, like a Bach fugue, something you don't try to understand so much as lower yourself into, as you would a warm bath. But, in contrast to Bach, the bits don't cohere into a satisfying whole.
At first, the central character appears to be a New Yorker called Jack O'Brien (Penn), an architect or an engineer - we're never quite sure, because the conversations he has take place at a volume just on the edge of intelligibility. He's stricken by a specific grief which has thickened into an existential unease.
The roots of that lie in Waco, Texas in the 1950s where young Jack (McCracken) is growing up with his brothers (Eppler and Sheridan).
The fact that the parents (Pitt and Chastain) are intended as archetypes is hinted at by the fact that neither is given a first name and although they operate as such strong narrative forces, they are oddly opaque as individuals: he works in a factory of some sort, though he adores Brahms and is the organist at their local church; she, a flame-haired pre-Raphaelite beauty, is just there, really.
What this points to is that the film gives us a child's eye perspective on the loss of innocence, not one refracted through the regretful adult gaze. I can't think of a film that has captured more precisely and more poignantly the painful confusion of growing up in the shadow of paternal ambivalence.
Pitt's Mr O'Brien is a man whose rage is tightly bound in a web of social custom, and when it breaks free we feel, like the boys, that we stare uncomprehending into an abyss.
What's problematic about the film is that the sun-kissed scenes of childhood are sandwiched between a depiction of the creation (which comes off like a classy version of those light-shows at acid rock concerts interleaved with outtakes from Jurassic Park) and of heaven (a reunion of souls on an endless beach). Malick's vision of this life as a corrupted Eden (most of the "dialogue" is intoned as a breathy voiceover, full of lines that sound like angels talking to each other) seems more silly than sublime.
The film certainly looks ravishing - Jack Fisk, a Malick regular who also works with David Lynch, conjures a world of gorgeously specific detail - and a magnificent soundtrack includes Brahms and, in the climactic rapture, the Berlioz Requiem. But I'm still waiting for Malick to make a better film than his first one.
Cast: Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Laramie Eppler, Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan
Director: Terrence Malick
Running time: 138 mins
Rating: M (adult themes)
Verdict: Both sublime and ridiculous The components of The Tree of Life don't really come together as a comprehensive whole.