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Movie review: 'The Tree of Life,' 4 stars

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in the "Tree

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in the "Tree of Life" directed by Terrence Malick. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film

The Tree of Life
4 stars
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken
Rated PG-13

It’s rare that you can say a movie is about life, death and the cosmos without sounding facetious, but in this case it’s completely true. “The Tree of Life” — Terrence Malick’s audacious, indulgent and ineffable masterpiece — deals with all that and more.
At the center of the movie is a young family of five nestled in a cozy Midwestern home circa the 1950s. Brad Pitt plays the overbearing patriarch, the kind of breadwinner who tells his kids to call him “sir.” His wife (Jessica Chastain) is a happier soul who teaches her three sons to let loose when her husband isn’t looking.

“The Tree of Life” travels through time, leaping forward to the present-day, when Jack (Sean Penn), the eldest son, is grown up and quietly dealing with the psychological aftermath of his childhood. It rewinds to the age of dinosaurs, when humans and all their baggage are still millennia away. Then there’s the montage of nature scenes, from microcosmic cell activity to macrocosmic galaxy formations. This drawn-out interlude may bore the pants off some — it is pretty weird — but it’s enormously humbling and eases you into a lovely metaphysical state of mind.

One way to describe Malick’s impressionist movie is as a string of moments that form Jack’s inner life. The moments are unremarkable on the surface — a toddler playing on the lawn, a mom hanging laundry — but Malick heightens them through close-ups, restless camera movement and whispered voiceovers. “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” a young Jack (Hunter McCracken) whispers as his father barks in anger. (First stirring of rebellion!) “How do I get back to where they are?” an adolescent Jack wonders as he watches his young brothers frolic. (First yearning for lost innocence!)

It’s bold to make a movie that deals so much in the abstract, but Malick grounds the film with beauty and emotion. From where does a man’s unhappiness spring? To find the answer, Malick implies, you must go back — all the way back.

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