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‘Tree’ more good than evil

Looks like Terrence Malick got a telescope for Christmas.

Brad Pitt is Mr. O'Brien, Jessica Chastain is Mrs. O'Brien, 1950s Texans.
Sean Penn also stars as their latter-day son, a pained, taciturn architect.
Brad Pitt is Mr. O'Brien, Jessica Chastain is Mrs. O'Brien, 1950s Texans. Sean Penn also stars as their latter-day son, a pained, taciturn architect.Read more

Looks like Terrence Malick got a telescope for Christmas.

A big one.

The Hubble telescope, in fact.

In "The Tree of Life," the director's search for rapturous images takes him (via the Hubble) to the far-out reaches of the galaxy, where he shows us stars in the making.

"Tree of Life" finds Malick noodling over the origins of the universe and of life on Earth - the movie includes some fantastic CGI dinosaurs, something you never thought you'd see in a Malick movie.

These images pop up at startling intervals as "Tree" looks in on a 1950s Texas family (modeled after his own, reportedly).

What does life in Waco have to do with dinosaurs and molecular space clouds? Well, a lot. "Tree of Life" references both the book of Genesis and the idea of genesis as it presents its family drama, built around a paternal figure (Brad Pitt) who is a conflicting mix of love and tyranny.

"Call me father," he insists, portentously, a sign that's intended to be read as The Father. Certainly that interpretation makes it easier to understand the open-ended spiritual questions that characters fling into the midst of Malick's kicky kaleidoscope - cobbled together with IMAX, super 8, digital - anything that looks awesome.

What they add up to is another portrait of a lost Eden, variations of the theme he worked in "The New World" and "The Thin Red Line."

I suffered through those movies, to be honest, and resented Malick's fixation on the symbolic. The director chose to set those movies at pivotal points in history, and just as deliberately chose to ignore specific historical details that gave those events their literal meaning.

That's obviously part of his point - that what we think of as momentous events are invariably another manifestation of the enduring (and rather helpless) human condition. Still, I couldn't shake the notion that it was dismissive/disrespectful to people who fought, died, sacrificed in those places.

There's none of that baggage in "Tree," which has Malick revisiting his own history - with a father he didn't understand, a mother he adored, a brother who reportedly died young (this is part of Malick lore; the reclusive director has rarely spoken of it).

Biblical invocations are apparent. Pitt clashes with his older boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), and displays an obvious affinity with the fair-haired second son, inspiring jealousy and envy in Jack.

With more than a hint of Cain and Abel here, Malick is able to turn some simple scenes of Jack, his brother and a BB gun into something almost mesmerizing.

The director's fixation on the idea of Eden excuses the overripe beauty that infuses his compositions - images of the boys wandering their youthful paradise, chasing bubbles, playing ball, snuggling with their mother (Jessica Chastain). "Tree" is going to make you feel really crappy about your MiniDV home movies.

I think Malick goes a little overboard with the Mother idea, the Earth-goddess alternative to Father who holds out her graceful hand to allow butterflies to land. She's so magically lovely that in one scene she simply levitates.

And I'm among those who feels "Tree" goes off the rails during the final reel, when it leaps forward to visit one of the boys (now played by Sean Penn) as an adult, wandering morosely in the modern skyscrapers he's designed.

That sets up the apparently supernatural finale, when Malick goes for broke and conjures an image of the afterlife. It looks like a Peter Gabriel album cover.

It's the kind of thing that will drive Malick-detractors crazy, if they're still awake. I know because I am a Malick detractor. I have to say, though, that I found "Tree" to be a much more absorbing picture than his last two. It's obviously personal, it's coherent in its own way, and it's openly, sincerely spiritual.

"Tree" is deeply Judeo-Christian, as his movies have been since "Days of Heaven," which quotes the Old Testament in the title, and also touches on the stories from the old book.

It's a little puzzling, really, that Malick hasn't won a larger following among the "Passion" crowd (he was certainly the first to see Jim Caviezel as Christ, in "The Thin Red Line").

You can say that Hollywood is a godless realm, but you can't say that of Malick's universe.