The Tree of Life is the rare movie you come out of feeling wiser than you went in. I saw it on a fairly large screen, sitting relatively close and low, which worked as much of the movie is shot at kid's eye level as fits the main story, Terrence Malick's autobiographical memory film of growing up with two younger brothers under a domineering father (Brad Pitt, just note perfect throughout, a role for which he'll be remembered) and angelic but subservient mother (Jessica Chastain, luminous) in smalltown Waco, TX in the 1950's. The viewing angle also fit the swirling uber-modern city sequences with Sean Penn as the boy grown up, a successful architect, in spiritual crisis remembering the time and then projecting into some heavenly plane.
And it was fitting for the extraordinary beginning of time sequence, taking us from big bang through dinosaurs, their extinction by asteroid, putting every one of our lifespans in epic historical perspective, as it does the young life that's lost off-screen and off in time.
With a liquidity in the editing that flows backwards and forwards in time, eschewing dialogue in favor of voices drifting in and out, an idyll that asks the deeper questions and begs to be experienced on as big a screen as possible, Malick takes us on a dream journey that feels more bracingly real and natural than anything I can imagine onscreen from recent years. Maybe long passages of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, maybe Malick's last movie, the all-too-overlooked The New World which gave us the origin of our nation, America. It plays like the movie Malick's been working towards ever since Badland back in 1973, at once his most personal and most courageous.
While I've heard quibbles about the end, which were actual boos from one section of a balcony at Cannes, I can't fault Malick for how he tries to wrap things up. I'm left reflecting, haunted by the evocation of a time very close to my youth, just a few years before and in an era when change was not yet fully bubbling, nothing like the lighting lifestyles of today. A time when a young boy could reflect on his place in the world by a stream, running out unlocked screen doors, into the street, by the abandoned house with the windows begging to be smashed, at a dinner table where the wrong word could provoke an awesome wrath.
Not a plot movie, not even really a character movie, more of a time and space movie, a 2001 with an earthly setting and a flickering light. Maybe not for everybody, but it will be known and seen and seen again, because it is truly art and it is truly provocative -- not by violence or shock, but to the spirit.
Malick's next movie is reportedly a romantic story, and one can reasonably hope that by putting so much of what he's wanted to say for so long in The Tree of Life, he'll have a cleansed palate and give us something we truly never expected from him.
But I'll bet one thing: the movie won't unfold in a way that anyone cab anticipate.
Not this artist.