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As the New World Turns

The Tree of Life (2011)

Merie Wallace/
Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s the new Terrence Malick! It’s the Palme d’or winner! It’s Harmony Korine-meets-Stanley Kubrick! It’s the entire “Lost” series pared down to two hours and 18 minutes! Or — as some loudmouth overheard at another press screening put it — it’s two hours and 18 minutes of computer screen saver! Granted, the said loudmouth also believed Dominique Strauss-Kahn was set up. All joking aside, it’s interesting to see that even after his heirs apparent — namely, Mr. Korine and David Gordon Green — have respectively moved on to experimental video and Hollywood trash in the time span between two Malick projects, the old maestro continues to bear his own torch.

Mr. Malick further explores his artistic preoccupation of man vs. nature with “The Tree of Life,” although this time he has expanded the scope to perhaps the topic’s farthest logical extension: evolution vs. intelligent design. With the death of one of three brothers (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) in a 1950s Midwestern (or was it Texas?) family as the catalyst, the film goes off the deep end and traces as far back as the beginning of time — you read that right. The grieving Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) raises lots of unanswered or just plain unanswerable existential questions about god via fragmented voice over. And indeed, there are dinosaurs.

The O’Briens idyllic life incrementally loses its innocence as the three boys discover physical deformity, criminal delinquency, tragedy and death in the outside world. Their father’s (Brad Pitt) tough love also gradually crosses a line and becomes terrifying once his professional life devolves. Jack, the eldest son, gets so mad at his old man that he literally grows up to become Sean Penn. But somehow they’ll eventually meet again happily as did the cast of “Lost.”

In spite of the fact that it’s abstract to a point defying synopsis, “The Tree of Life” still succeeds in making you care about the characters — including Mr. Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien, who isn’t exactly what you would call sympathetic. As the film’s poster and Tumblr illustrate, every frame in Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is picturesque. But does the film live up to the hype? Frankly, it may require multiple viewings before someone can definitively arrive at a conclusion. It’s quite possible that Cannes jury president Robert De Niro simply relates to the father-son relationship depicted here. Or it could just be he and Mr. Penn go way back because of “We’re No Angels.”


Opens on May 27 in New York and Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Jack Fisk; costumes by Jacqueline West; produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Fiona Shaw (Grandmother), Irene Bedard (Messenger), Jessica Fuselier (Guide), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Laramie Eppler (R. L.) and Tye Sheridan (Steve).


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