Movie Review: The Tree of Life

If you watch Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (and I'm not recommending you do), you'll gain a whole new understanding of the phrase "art film."

Malick isn't a visual story-teller; he's a visual artist whose medium happens to be film. With each successive film, he moves farther and farther away from the conventional understanding of terms like plot, character and action.

Indeed, you can count on two hands the number of scenes in The Tree of Life (which just won the Cannes Film Festival) that involve characters actually speaking in view of the camera. You frequently hear their voices - but it's rare that Malick's camera actually shows anyone talking.

Story? Well, if I had to summarize it, I'd say that Malick's film is about a father (played by Brad Pitt) who lives to regret the harsh way he treats his preadolescent sons. Eventually one of those sons grows up to be Sean Penn, who learns to forgive his father (in his 10 or so minutes of screen time).

And that, I believe, is what the takeaway would be for the average person who saw this film unprepared - that and the fact that Malick takes almost 140 minutes to tell a story that could be the length of a TV movie (or less). After seeing the film, however, I read the press notes, which state:

"(Jack's) human struggles become part of the cosmos' vast creative and destructive powers, as he begins to sense his connections to the dust of the stars, to the prehistoric creatures who once roamed the earth and to his ultimate destiny."

Really? See, I got none of that. What I did see was an early sequence in which parents (played by Pitt and Jessica Chastain, Hollywood's new It girl) get the news that one of their sons is dead. That obviously takes place in the past, probably the late 1960s - and then we cut to the present, where an unhappy looking Penn scowls around a modern-looking workplace and mumbles into a phone about disagreements with his father and the fact that his brother was killed when he was 19. And then ... what?

Well, there's a 15-minute wordless interlude in which Malick apparently takes us back to the Big Bang and brings us through the formation of Earth, the evolution of life from single cells to dinosaurs to the Ice Age - and then plops us back in the West Texas backyard of Pitt and Chastain in the 1950s, as their three children are born and grow to pre-adolescence.

Seriously - there's a solid 15 minutes without dialogue (except voice-over dithering in which someone - Penn? - mutters whispered questions like "Who are we to you?" and "Did you know?"). It's a ballsy move - and one that's almost guaranteed to clear theaters. After all, this segment - bound to perplex even sentient movie-goers - comes a half-hour into the film, 30 minutes that have been vague (at a minimum), cryptic and mysterious to the point of impermeability.