Movie Maniac

Baffling 'Tree of Life' an existential query on existence

I am as evolved as the next guy. I walk upright and smell my food before eating it.

But I am not smart. At best, I’m mildly intelligent.

So when a movie baffles me, I’m at a loss. “The Tree of Life” did just that.

But not all the time. And through the course of the sometimes frustrating journey, it is a resounding cinematic experience. We feel like we’re watching something important, even if we’re not sure what. That the film manages to be a heartfelt coming-of-age drama and an existential query on existence is mind-boggling in itself.

Maybe I just need things spelled out for me, but I think the film is best when it follows a mostly traditional narrative. It’s certainly more involving and emotional that way.

The story starts with a family in 1950s Texas. We’re introduced to the O’Briens, whose stern father (a magnificent Brad Pitt) and wholesome mother (Jessica Chastain) get news that one of their teenage sons has died.

But this is told in flashbacks by the family’s eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), an architect living a big-city life in stark contrast to his small-town beginnings.

He recalls the pain of the loss as we witness his childhood memories, colored with details that he thought were small but aren’t.

And then he goes even further back in his childhood — but the viewer goes beyond that.

In a confounding sequence, writer/director Terrence Malick takes us (albeit symbolically) to Jack’s conception.

But he doesn’t stop there. We go even further back — to the conception of humanity. I think. It’s a little hard to tell. There were dinosaurs involved, I do know that. And this is where the viewer will either give up helplessly or hang in there.

The film does take some patience (and these sequences recall imagery of “2001: A Space Odyssey”), but eventually we leave the metaphorical and get back to the narrative at hand, mostly.

We catch up with Jack as a young tyke, as he begins to experience the world around him. Then two brothers are born, and we see how he adapts to the confusion of having to share his world.

Eventually, we settle in with them in their pre-teen years, where Jack (now played by newcomer Hunter McCracken in a roiling performance) and his brothers are just mischievous boys having fun.

But their father is becoming more and more stern, as he realizes his own dreams are fading away (as beautifully realized by Pitt) while he carries out his duty and provides for his family.

Pretty soon, young Jack starts clashing with Dad, forming a prickly relationship that seems to encompass their ongoing years.

Throughout this family dynamic, there are nice flourishes of emotion and spiritual insight (overtly Christian at times) that are universal, though we start to wonder just how much of it is autobiographical.

Malick (who is known for taking long breaks between films, from “Days of Heaven” in 1978 to “The Thin Red Line” in 1998 and “The New World” in 2005) has always used dreamy atmospherics in his films as much as words or physical action.

His work has remarkable sense of place. He’s preoccupied with textures — how we feel things around us. And he loves the whispering wind and how it moves things — as if we’re all just blowing in the breeze.

But in “The Tree of Life,” it all seems so much more defiantly personal. He’s certainly created his vision on his own terms — profound and maddening yet ultimately resonant.

Some will find it pretentious. Some may even leave the theater — I thought of doing so. But I and my puny brain stuck around, trying to figure it out. And I think that just might be what Malick is saying, at its core.

We’re all just here trying to figure things out.

‘The Tree of Life’

* * *

Rating: PG-13 (some thematic material)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Showing at: Warren Theatre (east)