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The big picture Terrence Malick's artful, star-studded movie flashes backward and forward through time to ponder some basic questions of life

Thank God for movie stars.

If it hadn't been for Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it's highly unlikely that anyone ever would have seen Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," which is likely to be the great film of 2011 when all the list-making is finished.

It is certainly the great film occasion.

Which is not to say that I have no reservations about "The Tree of Life." I have many. Nor is it to say that anyone is likely to agree who thinks of films only as entertainment in a continuum with television -- whether "Bridesmaids," or "Super 8," or "The Departed" -- and not as art.

"The Tree of Life" is not entertainment in any ordinary Hollywood way, conventional or unconventional. It is art.

To put it another way, it is not the equivalent of a novel or a novella or a short story, as most films are. It isn't prose. It's narrative poetry. If you want to find Malick's closest artistic brothers and sisters, you probably shouldn't look at other filmmakers or musicians, or even painters. Try Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

It isn't necessary to know your Browning or Tennyson to see the film, but you do have to understand that the movie you're seeing is for another, much larger, version of yourself than the one you're used to bringing into movie houses.

In other words, don't expect two hours and 20 minutes of simple meaning. True, Malick -- with only his fifth film since 1973 -- is essentially making an apparently autobiographical film about growing up in 1950s Texas. But he's doing it in order to ask the huge, embarrassing questions that we sophisticated adults like to dismiss as sophomoric: Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? Why do innocent people die? Is there an afterlife? Why do we exist? For that matter, why does anything exist? How do we best fit our lives into the life of the universe?

Silly, ridiculous, pointless questions like those.

Except that they're the ones sensitive teenagers tend to ask. And, believe me, one or more of them are still hanging around the periphery of your head in your mid-60s, maybe all of them.

And that's where Brad Pitt and Sean Penn come in -- as well as everyone else who has ever acted in a Terry Malick movie since he came on the scene with "Badlands" in 1973.

Actors are no fools. They know who the poets are, and they want to work for them. Whatever the result, they yearn somewhere within to make Malick movies, if only to say that they did. (More crucially, they want to know that there's poetry in their profession, as well as in his.)

It is no accident that "The Tree of Life" won the Palme d'Or -- the big prize -- at the Cannes Festival from a jury whose head judge was Robert De Niro (who has never worked for Malick but, as a man who now makes Focker movies, undoubtedly yearns to, somewhere within.)

The story Malick is telling in "The Tree of Life" couldn't be simpler.

It's about a suburban couple with three sons living outside Waco, Texas, in the '50s. The father is a serious man (Brad Pitt) who can't seem, in modern terminology, to find traction in the world. He's an engineer with multiple patents of dubious worth. He's the kind of man whose jaw juts out in permanent pugnacity and who teaches his sons to box but tells the world his deepest regret is that he never became a classical musician.

His wife (Jessica Chastain) -- whose voice-over narrates the film in a typically Malick-style non-narrative way -- is a soft and lovely maternal presence, a wisp of playfulness and enveloping warmth who provides a loving and nostalgic context to her husband's inchoate furies.

Malick wastes no time in telling us what his movie is about. We hear Chastain's voice telling us about life -- "the way of nature. And the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow Nature only wants to please itself to have its own way."

But "no one who loves the way of grace comes to a bad end."

And there's your movie, the meaning of everything you're about to see.

It flashes backward and forward through time. At the heart of their existence, though, is some terrible news they receive on the phone in later life. Obviously, one of their three sons has died -- or so we think, putting intuitive two and two together.

It's the deep sorrow at the heart of this film, the reason we are seeing its need to understand, to explore the biggest questions. ("The Lord takes away. That's the way HE is.")

It's also the reason the film -- astonishingly and suddenly -- whisks us from Texas to the birth of the universe and the Earth and life itself, including dinosaurs stepping on each other's necks. (All supervised by Douglas Trumbull, the special effects wizard of Kubrick's "2001," of which this film seems, to some, the 2011 equivalent.)

We've seen micro. Now Malick will give us macro. He'll put us right into the primordial soup -- and then go on from there. We'll see oceans and jellyfish and manta rays and schools of hammerhead sharks. And all of it as a provisional answer to a question asked of God by a grieving mother: "Who ARE we to you?" Think of it as a second canto in Malick's epic narrative poem.

The images are genuinely awesome, just as were those 70 mm images in Malick's second and greatest film, "Days of Heaven" (which, I assure you, is utterly pointless when seen on DVD. It has to be experienced on the largest of screens with the greatest of sound).

And then it ends with the third, when we are fully immersed in the lives of the three subteen brothers, played astonishingly by typical young Malickian nonprofessionals Tye Sheridan, Laramie Eppler and Hunter McCracken. We see their father try to father them, '50s style ("If you want to succeed, you can't be too good"), their mother try to mother them. We see them play and scuffle and deal with each other and their neighbors.

A typically astonishing bit of storytelling-through-images: one of their friends has a terrible burn scar on the back of his head. We know everything that happens when Malick shows us the scar and a sudden flashback to a blazing fire inside a house. That's how we learn so much about other things in life, too. But only Malick shows it to you in movies.

And we repeatedly flash forward to Penn, a bemused man in a modern Houston far more alienating than the prehistoric world of jellyfish, rays and dinosaurs.

Is he trying to follow "the way of grace" in a world with nothing but "the way of nature?"

Is he the grown-up version of the little boy played by Hunter McCracken? Probably, but then you can't be sure.

All you know is that in Malick's cinematic world, he gets haunting performances from children. In "Days of Heaven" it was Linda Manz, whose improvised, wildly elliptical narration gave the entire movie its structure. In "The Tree of Life," it's Hunter McCracken, whose eyes tell you everything that is secretly going on in this family.

Dad loses his job when the plant where he works closes. The family has to move out of the house.

And, as we know, not too far down the road from there, one of these three subteen sons will be dead at the age of 19.

The whole movie, then, is Malick's answer to his mother's question to God: "Who ARE we to you?"

Which, of course, is just the former philosophy student's way of asking another question.



The Tree of Life

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken in Terrence Malick's unique film about the opposing forces in the universe and the lives of some kids growing up in 1950s Texas. Rated PG-13; opening Friday.

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