The Tree of Life
From writer-director Terrence Malick, we don’t demand “story” per se; we extrapolate allegory and familiar archetype, and when so inspired, surf the curl of beauty out toward transcendence. Whether it works is really up to us, which is why he’s such a genius and so irritating. Some standard-seeming narrative events do transpire here, presumably as recalled by a depressed Houston architect, in the form of Sean Penn, reflecting on his Waco childhood. There’s Brad Pitt as the woundedly authoritarian father, Jessica Chastain as the ethereally lovely mother, and various children, most significantly Hunter McCracken with his intense little proto-Penn face. Together they do a lot of fragmentary whispered voice-over, and act out a grand opposition between selfish “nature” and selfless “grace.” As Malick gropes for correlation between the birth of Earth and the death of innocence, in an ecstatic cross-cutting chronicle of primordial progress, their fealty to him is poignant. For all the exquisite cosmic billowing and dusky Americana, though, the best stuff comes from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera frolicking among boys being boys, conspiring in their dreamy, weird, cruelty-tinged coming of age.