Director Terrence Malick is a magician with a movie camera. But watching his new film, “The Tree of Life,” is like watching a magician perform one trick over and over again for 138 minutes. As amazing as that trick is, when it’s repeated endlessly, it loses some of its luster.
In “Tree of Life,” Malick produces images that are as stunning for their beauty as they are for their simplicity. One, in which an upside-down camera dances around the shadows of playing children, is absolutely astounding. Others look so good they literally made my jaw drop. But then the shots begin to pile up: more children playing, more images of the abstract luminescence of space, more hands delicately brushing across thistles (always with the thistles!). I kept waiting for something, anything, to break the monotony. It never did. Malick likes to shoot with magic hour light, so named because it’s rare and ephemeral. Not in “The Tree of Life,” where it’s always magic hour. Individually, these shots are incredible. But at a certain point, the perfection becomes almost suffocating.
Malick’s approach is both microcosmic and macrocosmic. Maybe that makes it simply cosmic, since the film’s scope includes scenes chronicling the birth of the universe itself, from the sparks that ignite suns to the evolution of creatures from globs of cells to thoughtful dinosaurs (yes, even the dinosaurs in a Malick film are thoughtful). Before and after his interstellar journey, Malick focuses in on an American family that is almost certainly based on his own childhood in small town Texas: a rebellious son named Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his strict but loving father (Brad Pitt) in Smithville in the 1950s.
There is no narrative per se, no story thrust upon Jack and his family. Artful, wordless scenes at the beginning of “Tree of Life” inform us that Jack’s brother will die years later as a teenager (much like Malick’s own brother did). And artful, wordless scenes that follow find Jack (and, perhaps, Malick himself) as an adult played by Sean Penn, wandering a modern landscape of cold glass and steel and business meetings, and slipping into a desert dreamscape. Penn fans looking for a performance on par with “Mystic River” or “Milk” should readjust their expectations; his role is small and his percentage of the film’s dialogue — which isn’t much to begin with — is even smaller. All the actors are fine, but none have much room to work with. They’re all just chess pieces for their director. They exist here not as people but as ideas of people, pretty but sort of empty.
“The Tree of Life”‘s greatest accomplishment is the way in which it transforms intensely personal childhood memories into these transcendent, fragmented moments of grace: the movie feels plucked, bit by beautiful bit, directly from Malick’s brain. But despite the resonance of individual chapters, the film never adds up, like a pile of Jenga pieces no one bothered to stack. Even though the film seems to exist inside the shared consciousness of its characters, we never get very deep inside any of their heads or their lives. For a movie with such audacious ambitions — to create a dialogue between the entire story of the universe and the entire story of one family; the sun versus the son, as it were — “The Tree of Life,” plods forward in a shockingly repetitive routine. Kids playing, father admonishing, mother (Jessica Chastain) watching silently and beautifully, idealized and unknowable. Over and over.
The visuals will stay with you for a long time, and Malick’s work is bold and risky in a way that not enough films are. Still, I hesitate to call it unconventional; as a Terrence Malick movie, it’s actually kind of conventional. With “Badlands, “The Thin Red Line” and the rest, Malick’s already proven he can make this sort of movie: striking, melancholy, gorgeous, and somewhat distant. I know I’m being greedy, and I’m in no position to tell an unquestioned master of cinema, what to do with his gifts. But isn’t it exciting when a magician does something new?