Terrence Malick fans have come to expect a different kind of narrative art form from the reclusive director but THE TREE OF LIFE makes you wonder what the director was smoking when he put this film together. Its no wonder the studio distributing the film suggested you take in a 4:20 screening -- if you get their drift.

THE TREE OF LIFE follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father played by Brad Pitt. The death of Jack's (Penn) brother sets off his memories of his childhood which leads to Jack's disillusioned adult life.

The Badlands and The Thin Red Line director combines three different movies into THE TREE OF LIFE. In one part, Sean Penn, through narration, refects on his days as a child during the 1950s in a Midwestern town. We flashback to his childhood days with a loving but demanding father who expects perfection from the eldest of his three boys.  Early in the film, Malick takes you back to the creation of the universe with imagery from the big bang, to the age of the dinosaurs and their extinction, and shots of nature including exploding volcanoes. It was like watching an episode of Planet Earth or a nature documentary in science class.
While the THE TREE OF LIFE feels poetic through its beautiful imagery, the disjointed narrative takes you out of the film. The early part of the film and the finale proved to be the strangest of the story. After the death of Jack's brother, Jack returns to his city life as a husband and successful business man while his parents grieve their loss. They don't utter a word of dialogue to each other. Instead they narrate their feelings as they go through the motions of their daily life. In one scene, Jack is in a business meeting with his peers as they conduct their business but Jack's mind is wandering. During that scene, we hear a voice over of Jack on the phone with his father apologizing for his behavior at the funeral. We cut to Brad Pitt's character staring out the window but we only see his backside as the conversation takes place at a different time than what we are seeing.  
Once THE TREE OF LIFE settles on Jack's childhood story, the film takes a linear narrative with the purpose of telling a story.  This is where we see Brad Pitt shines as a truly talented actor. Rarely have you seen Brad Pitt play an unlikeable character on the big screen. Granted he's played quirky characters such as Tyler Durden in David Fincher's Fight Club or a nut job in Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys but they're caricatures. His portrayal of a father feels very real and true to life. He's not a complete monster of a father but certainly he has his moments where you are scared of the man. Newcomer Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife also impresses as a new face to the big screen.  Sean Penn didn't have much to do as he stared off into space most of the time, reflecting on life and aimlessly walking through his mundane life. Sean Penn still has a commanding presence in the film, but it's hard to gauge since he doesn't interact with anyone. We're just following this character without really knowing what he's thinking or where he's going.

As the characters ponder the meaning of life, Malick cuts to shots of the cosmos or landscapes such as the woods or the desert. He finds poetry in those shots like in a close-up of the ridges on a rock or a leaf, all beautifully photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hallow, Burn After Reading). Malick contrasts the lush colors of nature with the cold, gray colors of modern architecture in which Sean Penn is surrounded by in the big city.  For those who appreciate nature,  you'll enjoy the imagery but it does interrupt the flow of the story.  

The film once again takes a bizarre turn towards the end. Sean Penn has gone from the big city to the middle of nowhere roaming among desert canyons, feeling the canyon formations. He winds up on a beach shoreline where his family reunite including his childhood self in a dream like sequence. Other random people roam the beach as well. You're left wondering if this is heaven but it's not clear.  

You will either love it or hate it but THE TREE OF LIFE is one of those films you definitely have to decipher.  THE TREE OF LIFE comes off less like a film and more like an impressionist painting hanging in an art gallery. Perhaps Terrence Malick set out to do just that.

THE TREE OF LIFE is now playing in select cities and expands July 8th.

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