As inscrutable as it is beautiful, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" sets a new standard for film as poetry. Beyond dense and layered to a point of near total obfuscation, the film unfolds with a languid, riverlike pace, floating along as a dream and surrounding you like a universal meditation. There are big, huge ideas here, rolling across the sky as clouds, daring you to try to reach out and touch them. This is a film about everything Malick has ever considered, and by turn everything we too have ever considered; attempting to wrestle down nothing less than the meanings behind the meanings and the point at which any of our existence began to be significant, Malick creates an homage to the awesome spectacle of being in a way that almost no other filmmaker has been able to do.
This is a piece of art that is really beyond any sort of criticism because the vagueness of the narrative and the overwhelming feel of the universal aspects leave room for little other than subjective interpretations; you may come away from this film feeling a renewed sense of spiritual awareness, you may come away from this feeling a deep-rooted anger towards the way your life has panned out, you may come away from this feeling beyond confused and wondering what, exactly, you're supposed to do next to try and make sense of any of what you've witnessed. The raw material is there for you to work with, and I think part of what Malick has put into this picture is a freedom to look at the themes and ideas and mould them into whatever you need them to be. There is obviously a great deal of Malick himself in this picture, at least as much as we're likely to ever get, and it becomes very easy to think of "The Tree of Life" as the film he's been steering his career towards for the last forty years. It's that epic, that expansive, that immersive...but there's an intimacy at the heart of it that pulls against the universality that dominates the film's framework.
Visually the film is stunning; Malick's images are pure majesty, photographed instances of literature in motion, the weeping sorts of compositions that line the sleeping hearts of time's greatest artists. Red blood cells coalesce into nebulas, white blood cells morph into the stars themselves, dinosaurs engage in strange acts of what might be mercy, trees sway and dance, and planets rise across the horizon and assert themselves as the universe's great obstinancies. It all seems larger than it could ever possibly be, like Malick is trying to get at something that even he isn't able to entirely grasp. That sense of mystery haunts every frame of "The Tree of Life"; i think it's the film's greatest strength, but that level of open-endedness could very well be off-putting to less philosophically minded viewers. This is most definitely a think piece, and if you don't come away from the film with about a million different questions about what the fuck is going on all around you all the time, then "The Tree of Life" has failed in its only real identifiable theme. Malick wants us to be in awe of everything around us; all of nature has value, all of life is inscrutable, and trying to understand something so beautiful and vast and magnificent is beyond mere mortal applications of thought. As it ventures further into theoreticals, philosophy ultimately begins to fail as it dissolves into math and logic; Malick's film is able to expound on these sorts of questions in a more poetic and visionary way, and in this manner his philosophical engagement with questions of being becomes slightly easier to comprehend. Not that there are any answers here-there aren't-but there's an attempt to illustrate what's inside.
Like "The Thin Red Line," much of the film's narrative is advanced via an interior dialogue; questions of upbringing and personality and how much we get from whom and what is actually us in the raw dominate the proceedings. The actions that these dialogues give way to don't seem near as important or epochal as the questions that led to them; much of the film has a hushed and quiet pace befitting intense contemplation. For me, a lot of the film was spent simply trying to listen as i was bowled over by image after breathtaking image, idea after confusing idea. The story exists to give the film some sort of grounding; how it ties into the concept of being in the universe, how we're supposed to fit Malick's simple earthborn sliver of time into EVERYTHING, is a slightly more difficult puzzle to put together, one that i'm not really sure i can do.
This willful obscurity helps make the film much more alluring; the jumbled cohesiveness and tendril-like extensions of implied meanings create a resonance that maintains hold long after the credits have rolled. Watching "The Tree of Life" feels a bit like walking through impossible halls of architecture is some removed astral plane, forever staring up at beauty and vision that you don't really get. It seems lifted from another realm, plucked out of a churning magic and let loose on the reality we've come to know. It's a little discomfiting but in the best possible way; Malick's demand that you think about what you're seeing becomes intuitive as the puzzles stack on top of each other.
There's little else i can communicate about "The Tree of Life" other than it is an absolute must see for anyone remotely interested in film as art. Malick has attained a status similar to that of Kubrick, and rightly so; the ambition seen here is so far-reaching it becomes reckless, more fearless and challenging than any other film you're likely to see in the next several years. Questions, at their best, give way to more questions, an infinite dialogue with possibility and perception. "The Tree of Life" wants that dialogue with you, and it wants to open you up to the insane, explosive beauty and wonder that exists all around you. Every action, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, has a mirror in gargantua near infathomable. We don't think about these things enough, but Terrence Malick does-his wish to convey that sense of awe and grace is a gift to the world of film. This is a major work, and i cannot recommend it more highly.