ON A FRAME-BY-FRAME, shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene basis, Terrence Malick is pretty unfuckwithable. Like a gene splice of Boo Radley and Stanley Kubrick, the reclusive filmmaker's works are austere, confident, and frequently stunning; hitting the pause button at random during any of his films usually reveals the sort of shot that other filmmakers slave for their entire careers. Patient and defiant, Malick makes movies on his own terms: You either come to them willing to accept what he has to offer, and at the pace he's willing to offer it, or you're in for the longest 16 hours of your life.
With The Tree of Life, Malick's created a film that embodies the best and worst of his tendencies. I'd tell you what it's about, but it's kind of about everything: Cosmic and daring and intimate and insightful, it straddles, dodders, and occasionally trips along the thin black line between glorious success and well-intentioned failure. It ranges from dourly introspective familial drama to life-and-death struggles between dinosaurs, spanning eons and species and the tiny distances between people. Sometimes it works, beautifully and boldly and with Old Testament-style grandeur; sometimes it feels like a deleted scene from Jurassic Park.
Crappily computer-generated dinosaurs aside (in a movie as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as this, it's too bad Malick's prehistoric stars look like they're on loan from a 1997 PBS special), The Tree of Life mostly deals with the O'Briens, a Texas family in the '50s. There's a father (Brad Pitt), a mother (Jessica Chastain), and their three boys, most notably Jack (played as a child by the awesomely named Hunter McCracken, and as a grownup by an even-scowlier-than-usual Sean Penn). Young Jack's thorny relationship with his overbearing father takes center stage, with Jack's poignant memories treated with as much gravity as Malick's fiery, rumbling depiction of the Big Bang. As the experiential, sensual The Tree of Life swoops and floats and rambles, spinning in directions both metaphysical and pedestrian, the only constants are life (exuberant, joyful, hard) and death (terrifying, ominous, also hard). Predictably enough, there are also about 5,000 serene, graceful shots of a sunlit tree, which either stands proudly as a majestic symbol of the interconnectedness of the universe, or it's just a thing in the O'Briens' yard. Your call.
The Tree of Life is inarguably beautiful, and there are frequent moments of clear, moving profundity—just as, especially toward its ethereal climax, there are sequences of goofy clunkiness when Malick gets too emo for anyone's good. As a whole, The Tree of Life isn't a masterpiece—but frame-by-frame, shot-by-shot, and scene-by-scene, it's an astonishing assemblage of parts. Maybe all of 'em don't fit together as seamlessly as they could, but hell. I'm guessing Malick's got bigger things on his mind.