Heaven, Texas and the Cosmic Whodunit

A. O. Scott in The New York Times:

Tree…moviegoers eager for rapture can find consolation — to say nothing of awe, amazement and grist for endless argument — in “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s new film, which contemplates human existence from the standpoint of eternity. Recently showered with temporal glory at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, this movie, Mr. Malick’s fifth feature in 38 years, folds eons of cosmic and terrestrial history into less than two and a half hours. Its most provocative sequences envision the origin of the universe, the development of life on earth (including a few soulful dinosaurs) and then, more concisely and less literally, the end of time, when the dead of all the ages shall rise and walk around on a heavenly beach. At the beginning and the conclusion — alpha and omega — we gaze on a flickering flame that can only represent the creator. Not Mr. Malick (who prefers to remain unseen in public) but the elusive deity whose presence in the world is both the film’s overt subject and the source of its deepest, most anxious mysteries. With disarming sincerity and daunting formal sophistication “The Tree of Life” ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them. In this case a boy, in whispered voice-over, speaks directly to God, whose responses are characteristically oblique, conveyed by the rustling of wind in trees or the play of shadows on a bedroom wall. Where are you? the boy wants to know, and lurking within this question is another: What am I doing here?

Here” in this case is Waco, Tex., in the 1950s, a slice of earthly reality rendered in exquisite detail by the production designer, Jack Fisk, and the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Their evident devotion to Mr. Malick’s exacting, idiosyncratic vision — the care with which they help coax his ideas into vivid cinematic reality — is in its way as moving as the images themselves, which flow and sway to equally sublime music. (The score is by Alexandre Desplat. He holds his own in some pretty imposing company, including Couperin, Brahms and Berlioz, part of whose great “Requiem” underpins an ecstatic celestial climax.) The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality.

More here. (Note: This is an old review, but the movie is playing once again, thanks to being selected as Gotham Awards' Best Feature Film of 2011, and is a must-see on the big screen)