No movie in 2011 inspired more debate than Terrence Malick’s metaphysical epic The Tree of Life: people either loved it or hated it, including the many readers who commented on our review. Malick tells the story of two fathers: an angry middle-class man in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s, played with great compassion and restraint by Brad Pitt, and God Almighty, whose creation of the earth is evoked in staggering optical-effect sequences by Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner). I must admit that, when Malick's prolonged creation reverie culminated in a sequence of dinosaurs foraging on a riverbank, I did think, "Hmm, this is getting out of hand." But you have to give Malick credit: some directors won't work with animals or kids, much less dinosaurs.
Malick caught plenty of flack for these astronomical and geological visions, but they provide a sharply naturalistic context for the gripping, largely unspoken drama that plays out in Waco between the tight-lipped everyman, his ethereal wife (Jessica Chastain), and his rebellious, intently watchful son (Hunter McCracken). The Tree of Life is a frankly religious film, one with the nerve to portray heaven as a sunlit beach where people are joyfully reunited with their loved ones—I suspect that's the reason people who dislike the movie are so vehement about it. But regardless of your spiritual perspective, you have to admire Malick's overreaching ambition; like the movies of Stanley Kubrick, this one is obsessional in the best sense, and a reminder of how few American directors are inclined to tackle the great questions of existence. (Probably because—like Clint Eastwood with Hereafter—the questions can wind up tackling them.)