The Tree of Life isn't exactly what its trailer suggests. Watch its marketing tool, and you get the idea that it's a poignant story about a young family with a heavy focus on the father-son dynamic. And it is. But it also isn't.
What you won't know from the preview is that you'll sweat through uncomfortably long stretches of natural-history footage that do nothing to move the story forward. We're talking meteors crashing, lava flowing, cells dividing, dinosaurs frolicking. Which sounds like it'd pique the interest of any nature lover, but instead, it kills the dramatic momentum.
Maybe writer-director Terrence Malick threw all that in to punch us with perspective: Nothing that happens in our little human worlds matters in the grand cosmic -- or even earthly -- scheme of things. He seems to imply that in the face of all this evolutionary rage, religion is a myth that we created to keep nature's chaos at bay.
The parenting styles of the film's alpha-male father (Brad Pitt, pitch-perfect in the role) and the hyper-feminine mother (Jessica Chastain) call to mind the old science-religion divide. Pitt's Texan character, in his 1950s manner, exudes survival-of-the-fittest crudeness, while Chastain captures the wide-eyed naïveté of faith. The husband totally dominates the wife -- as well as his three sons, who struggle with their contrasting influences.
Critics, too, are polarized. They've called the film everything from a prolonged screensaver to a sublime rumination. It got booed at Cannes but won the Palme d'Or. We get the sense that Malick cares less about serving up cinematic catharsis than about exerting his intellectual and creative power.
While the whole thing smells strongly of art-house indulgence, it does give us superb acting, beautiful vignettes of family life, and rich symbolism. In one scene, a truck sprays out clouds of DDT as children run happily into the toxic fog. Maybe an allegory for how our youth enter so eagerly into destructiveness. Maybe not. It's hard to tell.
If you plan on seeing this one, go into it knowing that the plot is flimsy at best. You can avoid frustration by being wide open to the experience that Malick, from his godlike perch, has created for you -- or by waiting for the DVD, so you can fast-forward through the slow parts.