The only substantive question left for Malick fans is the date of his beatification, since most emerge from this spiritual dreadnaught convinced they’ve witnessed a metaphysical visionary at work. Skeptics can only point out that visual and aural grandiosity are easily abused, and when that happens good intentions fall afoul of pretentious distraction — and oh what a deep hole Malick digs.
Hallucinatory trappings aside (conjured by Douglas Trumbull of “2001” fame), “Tree” is a fiercely tender snapshot of a suburban Waco, Texas family in the 1940s and 50s. There’s a beautiful, gentle mother (Jessica Chastain), a tough-love father (Brad Pitt), and three upstanding if mischievous sons. News that the youngest son has died opens Malick’s magic space-time corridor to visual mediations that immodestly cover the history of time and man’s connection to nature (the tapestry rolled out courtesy of Brahms, animated dinosaurs and images of Saturn). Between close-ups of eclipses, tree frogs, and gurgling surf, elder son Jack (Sean Penn), now an adult, ruminates quietly on his tempestuous relationship with his self-loathing father while pondering the existence of God (“Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.”) Since God is shy, a slide show of creatures and creations play elegiac understudy.
Only 20 minutes in does the film acquire a narrative, carving out the story of the three boys, doted on by their mother, treated gruffly by their Willie Lowman father. They graduate slowly from amniotic fluid to BB guns, their lives pasted on their faces (particularly that of young Jack, played by Hunter McCracken). This section is a beautifully observed treatise on family values and sibling rivalry in which Malick lets boys be boys and applies compassion and style.
At its core, “Tree” is an earnest if overly ambitious ode to the human condition and the passing of generations. Unfortunately, its forced and humorless mysticism smothers nature and extraterrestriality alike, adding a cathedral-like soundtrack that won’t shut up. As a result, the subtlety that’s behind some of God’s better work doesn’t stand a chance. Winner of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or.