It's structured not unlike Mahler's Second Symphony, which the NSO gave a thunderous performance a few weeks ago: It segues from the grave — the first movement, in which the O'Brien family learns of the death of one of their three sons — toward light and a final triumph over death itself. It proceeds along a symbolic pathway as bold as silent film: a mother (Jessica Chastain) who represents the path of grace; a father (Brad Pitt, performing the astonishing feat of turning into an average human being) who embodies the severity of nature; and an adult son (Sean Penn) who feels the pull of both influences as he wanders the chilly canyons of an angular contemporary metropolis. To tell the story of his own childhood and upbringing, Malick literally goes back beyond the first spark of creation; in the end, he sails past toward whatever comes next.
That tells what The Tree of Life does, but it hardly conveys the exhilaration of what it is — a philosophical inquest that leaps eons in an eyeblink of a cut, yet also a pitch-perfect recreation of a Southern childhood, captured by Emmanuel Lubezki's camera in flickers as lyrical as a shot of lightning bugs blinking on a summer lawn, or a toddler's knee-high marveling at a curtain rippled by a light breeze. You can accuse the writer-director of grandiosity in framing his boyhood as the elemental story of all existence — picture asking an acquaintance where he came from, and he starts at the Planck epoch. (Afterward, a friend recalled the moment the movie took hold for him: "I didn't even blink when the dinosaurs showed up.") But what other fixed point does any of us have? The movie tries to reconcile what it means to be one person formed by individual experience, yet one among billions of others whose life cycle and basic wants have been hardwired across millennia.
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