Few directors tackle anything even close to greatness these days. They seem happier to tread in the shallow waters of OK-ness or to conflate artistry with a fat paycheck or bloated budget. But director Terrence Malick has never taken the easy or profitable road, and that stance has earned him a reputation as a true iconoclast amidst the Hollywood status quo, with notable directors like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher lining up to sing his praises. His 1973 classic Badlands, starring Martin Sheen as serial killer Charles Starkweather, is a high-water mark in American moviemaking and a terrifying portrait of the banality of evil set against the lovely and hauntingly vacant landscape of the American Midwest. Malick’s equally unsettling World War II existential battle film The Thin Red Line (1998) captured the terror and loss of innocence in war. In many regards, Malick has examined what truths lurk behind the mirage of America and life, like the violence of loss or the difficulty of nation building.

A true maverick in an age of safe choices, his latest, The Tree of Life, shows a director firing on all cylinders, taking chances, even if sometimes the bet doesn’t always pay off. It is Malick doing what he does best: ignoring matters of fashion to make a film close to his heart, at times over the top and portentous, at others lavishly beautiful.

Malick is a master at rendering sensation and the experience of things as though they had never been translated to film before. He burrows under the skin of what his characters are seeing and experiencing, and you feel, as a spectator, like you inhabit their skin for a time too. At its finest moments, The Tree of Life, winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is a viscerally astonishing portrait of childhood as seen through the eyes of young Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest child among three brothers growing up in ’50s Waco, Texas. While the other boys are compliant and slightly indistinct, Jack is the rebel and the cynic of the family, challenging his strict, gruff father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), who rules his roost with the maddening illogic of a dictator. Dabbling in petty crime and minor mischief, Jack’s bad behavior seems to correspond with a personal epiphany that his father is a failed man whose limitations he will exceed.

In these scenes of Jack’s childhood, The Tree of Life is nothing less than a mind-expanding masterpiece. It will transport you back to the sensations of childhood in an instant: the sickening guilt of doing wrong, the psychological gut punch of your first glimpse of a handicapped or impoverished person, the pure joy of wandering unencumbered, free and alive in the woods. Malick captures how childhood means waking up each day in a state of heightened consciousness, primed for some new discovery.

Though those lazy, succulent summer days in Waco form the heart and soul of The Tree of Life, Malick is after something more than the education of one boy in the ways of the world. It is a film about creation, and it’s a meditation on the death that comes to haunt the entire O’Brien family, a taste of mortality in the family’s Garden of Eden existence.

Fluid with space and time, The Tree of Life flashes forward to Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult, an architect wandering in the soulless thicket of Houston’s glass skyscrapers, so antithetical to the green splendor of his childhood. And then it careens back, way, way back to before Waco, before America, before human life to the primordial ooze of the world’s beginnings. In scenes many have rightfully compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Malick records the replicating cells, the nascent sea life, the dinosaurs, and the flux of an earth in formation.

Where the film falters is in those laboriously extended scenes of creation: bubbling lava, vibrating cells, embryos, oceans, and jellyfish. Some of the scenes are gorgeous, while others are so murky it’s hard to guess the principle illustrated. And the sequences seem self-satisfied, more the gesture of a filmmaker enjoying the process and the chance to experiment than driving his film forward.

By the time he slips into the birth of the O’Briens’ second child, you understand Malick is after no less than the meaning of life and the head-spinning fact that suddenly, life can emerge where no life was before, plucked out of the vast mire of the universe to become a singular, willful, loved human being. The scenes of Jack’s gentle-to-the-point-of-ineffectiveness mother (Jessica Chastain) teaching her son to speak, spending endless hours with him in the cool, green grass of their front lawn, show the profundity of one of the simplest building blocks of civilization: the family. Few films have made the slow dawning of consciousness in childhood so profound or the gentle nurturing engaged in by parents so noble.

The Tree of Life asks the biggest questions of all: Where do we go when we die? Where does consciousness start? Malick’s approach is humbling and timely. He has a sheer reverence for the miracle of life that runs absolutely counter to our own death culture of hate speech, war, disaster, shame, and momentary pleasures. The way he shows the soft, miraculous growth of a child from a shape imprinted on a woman’s belly to a boy is one of the most poetic assertions of the magnitude of children that has ever been put on screen. The Tree of Life may not be perfect, but it is as close to essential viewing for anyone interested in the progress of American cinema as an art form as anything you’re likely to come across for a long while.

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