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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Tree of Life' not your typical mindless summer offering

In this publicity image released by Fox Searchlight films, from left, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt are shown in a scene from "The Tree of Life."

In this publicity image released by Fox Searchlight films, from left, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt are shown in a scene from "The Tree of Life."

The Tree of Life (PG-13)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

In 38 years, Terrence Malick has made just five films, all considered masterpieces by his contemporaries. He steadfastly guards his privacy and shuns publicity of any kind. With his sporadic release of titles, air of mystery and reclusive nature, Malick has perhaps inadvertently invited mostly accurate comparisons between himself and the late Stanley Kubrick.

With the release of Malick's new film, those comparisons are sure to escalate. Though some may rightfully disagree, "The Tree of Life" is a quasi-companion piece to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." The odd thing is "The Tree of Life" isn't a science-fiction movie but it is a non-linear drama with huge chunks of fantasy, amazing visuals and sparse dialogue.

It took many people decades to fully appreciate the wide breadth and scope of "2001," and that will probably be the case with "The Tree of Life." This is a film that scholars, critics and movie junkies will be analyzing, dissecting and arguing about for years to come.

As tempted as you might be, don't try to figure out the plot while watching, because there is none. Malick opens the film with a quote from the Book of Job and it may help guide you through the thicket, only you won't know why until the movie is over -- and maybe not even then.

The movie is the cinematic equivalent of Haiku; nuanced, truncated poetry that doesn't rhyme but nonetheless has a distinct rhythm. Malick's ambitiousness here is almost too grand. He addresses and mostly succeeds in distilling highly complex moral, spiritual, familial and societal issues within the context of a relatively tiny sliver of time yet is able to make them universal and age-proof. This is certainly not your typical mindless summer blockbuster offering.

The most amazing part of what Malick does is not passing judgment on the subject matter or giving us a clue as to what he's thinking. Considering the heavy duty metaphysical nature of what he's exploring, that's extremely high praise. To be so passionate about the presentation and dispassionate regarding the content of such weighty material is nothing short of astounding.

For anyone who came of age in the mid-'50s through the late '60s, the movie will serve as both a joyous and horrific memory portal. The three sons of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) residing in Waco, Texas, are us or at the very least children we knew. One is ordinary, one is gifted, another is troubled, and while it is not always obvious, their parents love them all dearly and equally.

Some audience members will not like Mr. O'Brien. Dyed-in-the-wool old school, he could be a WWII veteran and approaches his role of husband, father and provider with unwavering dedication and clarity and he has a distinct viewpoint regarding childrearing. He's also a musician, an inventor and a gardener. He'll never be a candidate for Father of the Year but he is a great father. Mr. O'Brien is without a doubt the deepest and most complex character Pitt (who took the role after the death of Malick's first choice Heath Ledger) has ever played and it is unquestionably his finest screen performance to date.

Much the same can be said for the little-known Chastain. Like many housewives of the era, Mrs. O'Brien assumes a traditional role in her household and -- whether right or wrong -- rarely strays from that position. She offers her husband, somewhat reticently, wide disciplinary leeway but only to a point. She never waivers from her role as Mama Lion and the scenes of her interacting with her children are moving beyond description.

If there is any part of the film that might be wanting, it's in the few segments set in the present day featuring Sean Penn as one of the adult O'Brien children. Penn's character is only seen sporadically and adds little to the bigger picture. This is not a slam against Penn; he does exactly what he's asked to do. The final scenes of the film somewhat sustain Penn's presence, but even in a movie as artsy and openly subjective as this, it's an extreme narrative stretch.

Malick shot the movie over three years ago and has been working with five editors since then assembling it. Love it or hate it, no one can deny the obvious painstaking care that went into putting it all together. It is a seminal and near-perfect work of art.

Malick has done here what many a filmmaker has strived for and only a handful have gotten even close to achieving. He's provided us with an unobstructed, crystal-clear looking glass into the past when our ages were in the single digits, our expectations of life and the future were wide-eyed and untainted and before all of those pesky complications associated with being an adult took over. (Fox Searchlight)