. . . And on the eighth day, Terrence Malick took over. He, too, created heaven, earth, ocean, and the firmament. The bang was big. It was beautiful. It was abstract, expressionist, and microbial. Great spurts of lava turned kaleidoscopic with rage. Clouds of natural gas billowed up like mastodons. Amniotic corkscrews torpedoed through water. A dinosaur lay felled beside a creek. Bubbles slid along wet earth like prehistoric pucks idling between air-hockey points. Sometimes the soundtrack swelled with Mahler. Sometimes it just swelled with silence. Occasionally, the swelling was ponderous. “Brother. Mother,’’ someone whispered, “It was they who led me to Your door.’’
Which is to say that “The Tree of Life’’ is a collection of conversations that lost souls and true believers have with themselves while keeping their heads to the sky. But the movie is church via the planetarium. It’s as if Malick set out to paint the Sistine Chapel and settled for a dome at the Museum of Natural History. The movie heaves with ambition and accomplishment. It kneads together into a single cinematic loaf the start of the universe, the activities of a Texas family in the 1950s, and several beach-bound, New Age promenades.
Behold the stupendous imagery (a soaring biplane, a woman blissfully levitating above her front lawn), the superb musical selection, the subtle jut of Brad Pitt’s jaw. Could a work of art be more handsome? Could it be more borderline profound? This movie weighs so much, yet contains so little. It’s all vault and little coin.
“The Tree of Life’’ begins with a quotation from the Book of Job. Job and his friends have been debating the power of God. The Lord speaks, in order to assert His divinity. Rather than prepare us for a work of tremendous struggle and random suffering at the hands of God, Malick carries on in a mood of artistic self-defense. He seizes on man’s lack of appreciation for the creative act (well, the movie did just win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which is a separate matter). Still, rather than align himself with poor Job, Malick identifies with God. The movie is an act of hubris: Can you feel it? Can you understand it? Can you top it?
Yet what’s crucial to Malick’s force as filmmaker is that his hubris is free of arrogance. He continues to create the illusion of innocence. Seeing God is a privilege that humbles and awes him. That’s hardly a simple achievement. I imagine that one of the reasons Malick has made just five films in 38 years is that he feels he can work only when the spirit moves him. The grandeur of his imagery — whether it’s this new film or his four previous ones (“Badlands,’’ “Days of Heaven,’’ “The Thin Red Line,’’ and “The New World’’) — seems to be in the service of or in deference to a higher power. The reason the Book of Job feels like such a self-mischaracterization is that Malick has always seemed to be a Genesis man. Each of his movies imagines a despoiled Eden. This is the first to embrace paradise found. But it may just be that Malick’s strongest mode isn’t existential contentment. It’s eco-social dismay.
“The Tree of Life’’ is rooted in Malick’s Texas boyhood. Jack (Hunter McCracken) — the truculent version of him that appears in the film — is nurtured by the abundance of his mother’s love and bewildered by the complexity of his father’s. The mother is a housewife (Jessica Chastain) who loves her three boys without condition. The father (Pitt) works in aeronautics, and his affection is entirely conditional. She tries to instill a relationship with God — once, she points to the sky and tells the boys, “That’s where God lives.’’ The father tries to establish fear of his authority and instill a sense of masculinity. The disappointment in Pitt’s face when the sons fail to demonstrate a proficiency in learning to fight is the most human expression he’s ever made. With mom, they zoom around the house. With dad, they’re ambivalently in awe. Before you’re with the heavenly father, you have to put up with the earthly one. If he’s not asking whether you love him, he’s making you open and close the screen door 50 times.
These scenes gently occur in and around their home and along the family’s quiet but eventful street, and they fall like confetti. It’s quite a show. But when it’s over, all you have is a pile of scraps. The domestic life lacks the wonder of the celestial stuff. To represent birth, Malick presents the pedestrian metaphor of a child swimming free from a sunken house. Making the mother a mystic and the father an industrialist creates a fine dichotomy. But Jack grows into an architect, played in a few cutaways by Sean Penn, who rides elevators and wanders a skyscraper. He looks miserable, like a man whose punishment for choosing the wrong path is this Ayn Rand afterlife.
No tension comes from these images. They accumulate but they don’t build. It looks as if the many scenes of young Jack at play with his brothers and friends will amount to something, that his witnessing one of his brothers making a musical connection with their father might solidify into a kind of Abel-and-Cain resentment. It’s for naught, since Malick has so steadily liberated himself from narrative that not even allegory interests him.
The scenes of boys rumbling through yards and houses and fields, throwing stones at glass, strapping frogs to toy rockets, simply holding each other as they weep in grass, come on like remembered dreams as opposed to dreams themselves. (Charles Burnett and David Gordon Green are two filmmakers who’ve framed child’s play as a holy rite. Green did so in seeming tribute to Malick and Burnett.) In “The Tree of Life,’’ the rush and flutter of images have the heft of important memories but lack the reverie of great slumbers. Jean Cocteau made opium dreams. With David Lynch, the dreams are psychotically alive. “Days of Heaven’’ and “The Thin Red Line’’ operate at such high levels of evocative reverie that you want to drape them with “do not disturb’’ signs.
“The Tree of Life’’ could use a disturbance. When Chastain hovers above the lawn or a chair appears to move itself, it’s a declarative moment, not a supernatural or metaphysical one. This doesn’t feel true of the planetarium stuff. That’s all full of wonder. The scenes on the beach purport to be about the search for meaning. But with people staring at and caressing each other as the tide comes in, with a commedia dell’arte mask sinking in the sea, it feels like Rapture kitsch.
The movie dares you to wonder whether Malick has completely lost touch with reality. That’s a trick. He has never appeared to harbor a direct interest in our times. In 1973’s “Badlands,’’ Malick was thinking loosely about the 1950s. In 1978’s “Days of Heaven,’’ he was thinking about the 1910s. In “The Thin Red Line,’’ it was 1942. And at the start of the 21st century, with “The New World,’’ he was rethinking the 17th. Malick barely dips a toe in 2011. “The Tree of Life’’ is about both the dawn of time and the appearance of its suspension. Shots of skyscrapers imply modernity without really engaging it — it could be now, it could be 3035.
People already feel protective of this movie and of Malick, who’s 67, as if his purity couldn’t withstand scrutiny: He’s a visionary and an artist, and those are dying traits in major American moviemakers now. Shouldn’t that suffice? That reverence also dramatizes the downside of standing at some visionaries’ feet: You don’t always see what they see. When Malick presents a great conclusive boreal splotch, some will perceive in it Stanley Kubrick’s climactic star child from “2001.’’ Some will detect God. Some will have the distinct impression that they’ve just been spritzed at the big cologne counter in the sky. That feels right. It’s Terrence Malick’s Obsession.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.