Angels in the Architecture

The wonderment of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life

, a project that has gestated in the mind of director Terrence Malick for 32 years, asks questions it cannot answer. That is exactly what makes it the most sublime piece of sacred art from this young century. The movie opens with God's big conversation-stopper in the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Malick takes that as a challenge—the movie hinges on an hourlong re-enactment of the planet's evolution, complete with colossal nebulae, walloping meteors and a wounded plesiosaur—then he responds with a query of his own: "What are we to you?" Sunday-school veterans will remember, however, that the Tree of Life was one of two trunks named in the Garden of Eden; the other was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and you couldn't eat from both. The movie seeks a peace that surpasses understanding. If it doesn't get there, well, who does?

"A man who writes of himself without speaking of God," Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote in his later days, "is like one who identifies himself without giving his address." Malick gives precise geographical coordinates. It turns out that God—or at least little Terry Malick's first stirrings of the divine—was hiding in Waco, Texas. (Don't tell the ATF.) Malick likes to disappear, too—he was gone two decades between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line—so autobiographical speculation is a pointless game to play, but The Tree of Life narrows its scope gradually from the farthest red dwarfs to the 1950s childhood of one suburban Lone Star boy, who runs barefoot through the billowing clouds of the local fumigation truck. As the tyke is cradled in his mother's arms, she points to a sheer blue sky and tells him, "That's where God lives." This tidbit of information sparks the most ecstatic montage in Malick's canon since the tree-fort dance in Badlands: a two-minute sequence of dusky bedtimes and exuberant wake-ups, hayrides and sparklers, set to Czech composer Bedrich Smetana's swirling "Vltava." We have seen the creation of the world; now we see the creation of one human consciousness.

That connection, between one mind and all the universe, is the only meeting point any of us have, and Malick repeats it throughout The Tree of Life, with his trademark choir of voice-overs rising to converge. I'll have to watch the film again to be sure—and I can't wait—but I'm pretty sure the riverbed where two dinosaurs have a fateful confrontation is the same waterway where young protagonist Jack (a limpid Hunter McCracken) sits down and weeps. By then, we know his reasons for crying: His father (Brad Pitt) is a clenched fist of blocked ambition, and emotionally pummels his sons to become winners in a cruel world, while his mother (Jessica Chastain) counters with a fragile argument for wandering and acceptance. The movie feels like an explanation for why Malick has been so reluctant to produce scheduled work. With the hero's puberty comes a rebellion against the tyranny of earthly and heavenly fathers. "Why should I be good if you aren't?" Jack asks—and at this point, the movie had my number so completely that I feared it would come up with a reason.

It doesn't, thank goodness. Dissenters from The Tree of Life's Palme d'Or win have described the picture as "flailing"; this is exactly the wrong word. If anything, it is too refined, too composed: It sometimes resembles a Tumblr feed from a design-smitten photographer. In its final sequence, a grown Jack (Sean Penn) rides up a Houston skyscraper and—in a probably unintentional nod to Willy Wonka's Great Glass Elevator—ascends to a healing vision of heaven. This is not very persuasive, and it doesn't matter: What is so piercing about The Tree of Life is not that it knows life's answers, but that it knows how the questions feel. It has immense scope, sure (the credits include a department of "Astrophysical Realm Visual Effects"), but also a detailed memory for the pangs of faith and doubt. Malick's final shot is of a bird flitting through towers and bridges: a suggestion that the spirit of God still moves through the things we build.

97 SEE IT: The Tree of Life is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.

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