Artistic ambition can be a bitch for filmmakers. Mainstream audiences yawn you off. And critics, the bastards, tend to curse out your aspirations to profundity, as if boldness in itself were a sin of hubris. Stanley Kubrick was initially slammed in 1968 for aiming so high with 2001: A Space Odyssey, now an acknowledged classic.
Lucky for him, and us, writer-director Terrence Malick follows his own rigorous path. Hitting the box-office sweet spot of trendiness is the last thing on his questing mind. The Tree of Life is only the fifth film that Malick, 67, has directed in four decades. But like its predecessors (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World), Tree delivers truths that don't go down easy. No one with a genuine interest in the potential of film would think of missing it.
It's a simple story on the surface. Like the Texas-born Malick, young Jack O'Brien (the remarkable newcomer Hunter McCracken) grows up near Waco in the 1950s. His father – Brad Pitt, in a performance of indelible implosive power – raises Jack and younger brothers R.L. (Pitt spitting-image Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) with a fierce discipline visible even in rare moments of affection. This father is broken by his own sense of underachievement, and Pitt subtly lets us feel his pain. For tenderness, the boys turn to their mother, given a nurturing purity by the radiant Jessica Chastain. Malick views these lives through the prism of the older Jack (Sean Penn doing much with scant screen time), now a Houston architect reeling from a family tragedy, the death of one brother.
The script has few spoken words, relying on visual impressions that connect a single family to nothing less than the creation of the universe, scored by Alexandre Desplat with symphonic samplings from Bach, Brahms and Mahler. Out of primordial mud and volcanic eruptions, life emerges in the form of dinosaurs, predators and dawning man. Kubrick's 2001 FX master, Douglas Trumbull, consulted on the effects, fitting them organically into the tale. But it's cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who links the intimate story to the cosmic one by creating miracles of light and shadow. Heaven and hell, brute nature and healing grace all have a place in forging the world as Malick sees it. Sure, he's overreaching. Most visionaries do. The Tree of Life dwarfs the big-budget guppies swimming at the multiplex. Drown those suckers. Shot with a poet's eye, Malick's film is a groundbreaker, a personal vision that dares to reach for the stars.