Brad Pitt and Tye Sheridan in The Tree of LifeTHE TREE OF LIFE

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is total bliss, and I mean that in the term's general and theological definitions.

Despite its breathless acclaim by several critics whom I respect tremendously - plus the film's Palm d'Or win at this year's Cannes Film Festival - I'll admit that my excitement about Malick's latest was laced with more than a hint of dread, as I seem to recall the same critics greeting the auteur's 1998 The Thin Red Line and 2005 The New World with similar raves. (Since my initial multiplex viewing of the former, I've tried to watch its DVD on a half-dozen occasions and have yet to make it through the meditative World War II drama without conking out. As for the gorgeous, enervating Pocahontas epic, I have zero interest in subjecting myself to it again, because as Malick's new offering reminds us, life is just too damned short.)

Yet from its first images, music cues, and contemplative, voice-over musings, I found The Tree of Life utterly extraordinary, a hypnotic and rapturous attempt to grapple with the meaning of ... well, everything, really: life and love and family, and notions of guilt and responsibility, and our place in a universe that seems both unimaginably random and wholly preordained. Describing Malick's achievement as something akin to a religious experience may sound trite. But I can't recall ever seeing a movie that so forthrightly addressed what it means not just to be human, but to be; if you give in to its resplendent beauty and power, you may find that, after leaving the auditorium, you're not quite ready to talk about the experience. You may find you're not quite ready to talk about anything.

As you've perhaps gleaned, there's no easy answer to the question "What's the movie about?", not least because The Tree of Life doesn't feature any kind of traditional narrative, or even - though this is more arguable - a singular protagonist. If pressed, however, you could fashion a (simplistic) response by saying that the film is an extended flashback/memory/reverie in which middle-aged architect Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), still grieving over the death of his brother decades prior, reflects on his youth in Waco, Texas in the early 1950s. With his family including a sternly demanding father (Brad Pitt), an ethereally doting mother (Jessica Chastain), and two devoted younger brothers (Laramie Eppler and, as the ill-fated sibling, Tye Sheridan), Malick's film follows young Jack (Hunter McCracken) as he begins to exit childhood and take his first shaky steps toward adolescence. You could, in other words, describe The Tree of Life as a classic coming-of-age tale set in post-war, small-town America - a Stand by Me with more existential contemplation and fewer dirty jokes. (No jokes at all, actually.)

Hunter McCracken in The Tree of LifeThat description, though, doesn't account for the dinosaurs. Before we're entrenched in the film's '50s milieu - gorgeously rendered by production designer Jack Fisk - Malick presents us with a 20-minute imagining of, quite literally, the beginning of time: a vast emptiness followed by a Big Bang, the formation of the earth, the dawn of cellular life, the evolution of dinosaurs, and the Ice Age. And it's in this sequence (as reports from numerous screenings, including at Cannes, have suggested) that viewers will likely either tune out completely or find themselves in thrall to Malick's vision. What The Tree of Life's writer/director appears to be attempting here is almost incomprehensibly huge: an impassioned, searching exploration of humanity and the cosmos and that which extends beyond the cosmos, framed within the probing questions and silent awe of a 12-year-old boy. Yet while hostile reactions to Malick's thematic extravagance - what many would call his pretension - are understandable, they seem to me terribly misguided. Because for all of its grandeur (and that origin-of-everything passage is legitimately, staggeringly grand), the film is most fully alive, and is at its truest, in its unceasing succession of tiny, emotionally incisive details.

There are scenes here in which Malick's control is so masterly that you want to applaud. The extended sequence that finds Jack sneaking into a neighbor's house and rifling through her lingerie drawer teems with the excitement and panic of early sexual curiosity, and for sustained tension, nothing matches the image of the boy's deliberate walk toward his father, who's busily toiling beneath the family car. (Malick's composition suggests just how easy it would be, and how tempting it is, for the child to kick away the car jack and crush his domineering dad.) In The Tree of Life, however, you're just as knocked out by Malick's many demonstrations of grace: the unrestrained wonder as Jack, as a toddler, gazes at his new baby brother; the admiration, mixed with a strange pity, as Jack watches Mr. O'Brien play a haunting classical number on the organ; Jack's silent plea for forgiveness after shooting his brother with a BB gun. Guiding his young, untrained actors with an unerring eye and ear for naturalistic behavior, Malick ensures that every moment involving the O'Brien boys plays as utterly real. (McCracken delivers one of the most beautiful, stunningly unforced film debuts I've ever seen.) But Pitt and Chastain, in their equally unaffected portrayals, are no less marvelous, and with his low-angle shots continually drawing our focus into the light - as if reminding us that God is the movie's true star - cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki lends both the earthly and celestial images a radiant, illuminated-from-within glow.

Is The Tree of Life a wholly satisfying experience? Much as I'd love to say so, unfortunately not. I could have done with fewer present-day intrusions by Penn's anguished, elder Jack; the coldness and vacuity of his urban locale, with its skyscrapers intruding on heaven's domain, is expressed with too heavy a hand. And while it works thematically, the climactic reunion between the living and the dead doesn't provide the punch it should, and comes off a bit like that Bergman-influenced beachfront scene that Woody Allen's filmmaker attempted in Stardust Memories. (Here, though, parody isn't intended.) Sadly, the movie dribbles away just when it should reach its true moment of transcendence. But The Tree of Life is still a bold, brilliant piece of work, and - this is no afterthought - an exquisitely engaging one, to boot; through the whole of its mostly plotless 130 minutes, I didn't yawn even once. Malick's movie questions the possibility and nature of miracles, and I have to say, that's practically one in itself.

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