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      The Tree of Life Review

      The Tree of Life poster

      The Tree of Life

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      In 1975 writer-director Terrence Malick told a writer from Sight and Sound magazine: "There's something about growing up in the Midwest. There's no check on you. People imagine it's the kind of place where your behavior is under constant observation, where you really have to toe the line. They got that idea from Sinclair Lewis. But people can really get ignored there and fall into bad soil."

      In Malick's first feature, "Badlands" (1973), that soil produced the serial killer played by Martin Sheen. Malick's fifth feature in 38 years, "The Tree of Life," which recently won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, illustrates a subtler erosion: the gradual, bittersweet coming of age of a young boy pulled between two parents in 1950s Waco, Texas -- a place of infinite, Eden-like greenery, a wellspring of brotherly love and, always, potential threats to that love.

      Scant on story, even lighter on dialogue, "The Tree of Life" will drive a lot of people crazy with its loose flaps and obvious casualties of the editing stage. (Fourth-billed Fiona Shaw plays "Grandmother," and has perhaps 30 seconds of screen time.) American film's most ardent naturalist here offers alternately blunt and allusive spiritual inquiries in which several characters, grieving the loss of a loved one, ask God: Why? Surrounding his presumably autobiographical act of remembrance and atonement (Malick, it is rumored, lost a brother to suicide), the film supplies a lengthy sequence, 20 minutes in, depicting no less than the formation of the universe; the birth of the planet; the dinosaur age; and then, audaciously, a return to Eisenhower-era Waco. An epilogue, which will please virtually no one (it's surprisingly banal in both ideas and imagery), brings us all the way to the shores of eternity, where we might meet our former selves and our departed loved ones as we make our way to the light.

      Call it outlandishly pompous, messy, whatever. I've seen it twice now, and though this childhood was not my childhood, and my spiritual yearnings are not Malick's, "The Tree of Life" already has come to mean a great deal to me. Malick's latest captures a series of glorious "found" moments between the brothers played by the young actors Hunter McCracken and Laramie Eppler. These are some of the truest fragments of a child's life, romanticized without being falsified, ever caught in an American film.

      Born in Ottawa, Ill., and raised in Texas and Oklahoma by parents whose uneasy emotional dynamic informs "The Tree of Life," Malick states his intentions early on. "Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me": So goes one of many murmured voice-over confessions spoken by Sean Penn, who plays the adult version of the troubled boy at the heart of this film.

      It begins with a quote from the Book of Job and flirts with parallels to Cain and Abel, among other Biblical figures. The scenario tapped into place by Malick is pure allegory, a struggle between "the way of Nature" and "the way of Grace." Penn, whose role clearly has been shaved in the final cut, is our conduit, Jack O'Brien. A lost soul, this modern-day architect looks back on the unexplained death of the younger of two brothers, years earlier, when the brother was 19. Jack recalls his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). The father, we're told, represents Nature. He finds "reasons to be unhappy," and converts his own frustrations in business (we hear of patents for inventions that never come to fruition) into perplexing tough-love lessons for his boys. Their mother, a vision of free-spirited light as portrayed by Chastain, contrasts sharply with Pitt's disappointed and blinkered disciplinarian, who leans hard on his oldest, Jack, and then deals with the regrets.

      The father was originally to be played by Heath Ledger, but Pitt -- hardly in the same league -- turns out to be ideal. Like all central performances in Malick's work, Pitt's isn't really central to this film's success or failure. Actors do a different sort of acting in a Malick project, falling away from ordinary interpretation and into pure behavior. As the father, Pitt registers visually first (his jaw set tight, his uneasy expressions of physical affection more like miniature power struggles showing who's in charge), emotionally second and dramatically, a distant third. There's something in this man's hypocrisies and anger, though, that connects with the actor.

      Chastain, working almost without words (at least non-voiceover words), succeeds within Malick's chosen parameters no less vividly. She's a saint, more or less, to the extent that at one point Malick shows her levitating, floating in her own beatific atmosphere. A foolish overreach? Maybe. The entire film is a foolish overreach. Much of it is also transporting. Malick's images, here bottled by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, are like rivers eddying this way and that -- but there's just enough specificity to make the boys' lives, the mother's receptivity to all good things and the father's erratic temper sting a little. In one scene Jack, at the dinner table, is caught fibbing by his father, and the way the boy struggles to maneuver his meat loaf onto his utensil speaks volumes.

      No one incident in "The Tree of Life" brings forth the scary but plausible change in temperament in Jack. The father's influence turns the boy hard, and harsh, without melodramatics or reductive explanations. Yet he is not lost for good. In Malick's previous film, "The Thin Red Line," the nominal protagonist speaks of "an avenging power in nature" (again, in voiceover; Malick prefers listening in on interior confessions than laying out conventional dialogue). In "The Tree of Life" the father becomes that avenging power, though to Malick's credit he never becomes less than human. The movie glances on Malick's visions of the past, sometimes achingly romantic, occasionally comic (there's a lovely shot of the boys chasing the DDT truck and its cloud of poisonous gas). The co-stars here, as always in a Malick project, are the grass, the trees, the birds, the sun, the stars, the fireflies and everything else on what the filmmaker clearly sees as God's green Earth. The richly expressive soundtrack of Brahms, Gorecki, Smetana, Berlioz and original compositions by Alexandre Desplat makes the familiar seem strange, and the cosmic seem homey.

      This may be the most overtly Christian mainstream picture since "The Passion of the Christ." Unlike that one, though, Malick's comes with a generosity of spirit large enough to get all sorts of people (including non-believers) thinking about the nature of faith and what it's all about. While Malick often expresses his characters' yearning in born-again argot ("You spoke to me through her, before I knew I believed in You") the key line, I think, comes from one of the boys, speaking to their mother.

      "Tell us a story from before we can remember," he says. "The Tree of Life" is that story.

      MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements).

      Running time: 2:18.

      Cast: Brad Pitt (Mr. O'Brien); Sean Penn (Jack); Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O'Brien); Hunter McCracken (Young Jack); Laramie Eppler (R.L.); Tye Sheridan (Steve); Fiona Shaw (Grandmother).

      Credits: Written and directed by Terrence Malick; produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release.

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