The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick, 138 mins (12A)

This is jaw-agape cinema, almost as if God was behind the Steadicam, but Malick's mix of the domestic and cosmic risks being more schlock than awe

There's no doubt whatsoever about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

The latest statement from America's most elusive film-maker – only his fifth feature in 38 years – is like nothing you've ever seen. It's a prodigious work, a magnum opus and then some. Yet you'll have to excuse me if I can't wholeheartedly add my voice to the chorus of praise – nay, of seraphic hosannas – that has greeted the film since Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or.

The Tree of Life is at once cosmic in its amplitude, yet as intimate as a family scrapbook. The seemingly autobiographical picture of life in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s – where the director grew up – is set in the context of the universe's history, no less, from before the Earth's formation to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, and beyond. On a more earthly scale, Malick portrays a couple, the O'Briens (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) and their three sons, following the boys from birth through adolescence to (in the case of oldest son, Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, then by Sean Penn) adulthood.

This is a surprisingly abstract, free-form work. There's a coherent dramatic thread, the key incident being the unexplained death of the middle son (in Vietnam seems a likely bet, although Malick's own brother reportedly killed himself). But, rather than being conventionally narrative, the film offers a loose sprawl of snapshots, of singular moments of family life. You might read the film as an extended reminiscence by architect Jack, as he wanders around the vastness of a sleek modernist complex.

Throughout the film, the O'Brien parents, and Jack as boy and man, are heard in voice-over, proffering their thoughts and sentiments to God. Jack questions the injustice of existence, while his mother posits a founding opposition between nature and grace. Nature is embodied by Jack and his volatile father; while Chastain's ethereal mom seems grace incarnate as she wafts around with her flame-red locks, at one point actually levitating in the garden.

Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous, gravity-free Steadicam photography captures a succession of moments at once ordinary and eloquent. The intimacy of family relations comes alive in a multitude of incidents that often comprise just a single gesture. There's a moment of breathtaking delicacy when toddler Jack reacts with petulant suspicion towards his baby brother; and another in which the father holds the tiny feet of his newborn son. This shot could hardly have failed to elicit ahhs, and yet it comes across as a real revelation: for all the film's freight of cosmological awe, this is the moment at which The Tree of Life most perfectly captures the miraculous strangeness of human existence.

There's a certain Norman Rockwell-style folksiness to all this, but it's given substance by Brad Pitt's commanding presence. Sloughing off his golden-boy sheen, Pitt convinces as a loving but careworn authoritarian, an engineer and sometime musician with great ideals and disappointments, who believes in teaching his sons life's hard-won lessons. The character is a mercurial, sometimes unreadable authority – "our father" as double to "Our Father" – and Pitt carries it off with impressive tender gravity.

In striking, not to say gobsmacking, contrast to the kitchen-sink stuff is the hallucinatory assemblage of cosmological imagery that forms a self-contained son et lumière epic within the film. Its leitmotif is a quivering sheaf of luminescence that could be read either as the divine spirit or as some galvanic spark on the subatomic level. This forms the key note to a delirious fugue of spectacle that takes in seething volcanic flame, billowing nebulae, the emergence of microscopic life, the oceans teeming with spores, spirals and jellyfish. Strangest of all is a CGI sequence, a mini Jurassic Park for theologians, in which one dinosaur is about to kill another, then changes its mind – seemingly, the birth of mercy.

Throughout the film, we get music that matches the images in magnificence – Mahler, Tavener, Berlioz, Holst, Gorecki ... With its overtly religious tenor, The Tree of Life comes across as part cathedral, part symphony. This is film as prayer, a cinematic canticle – and its absolute originality lies in the way that it bridges the cosmic and the domestic, the Big Bang and the back yard.

I can imagine religious coach parties flocking to the film – although American fundamentalists won't hold with Malick's attempt to reconcile divinity with Darwinism. Personally, I'm sceptical of awe in cinema, especially when it's so magisterially orchestrated. I watched with mouth pretty much continually agape, yet I can't quite yield to a film that so insistently declares, "Behold! The glory of Creation!". There's something spiritually coercive about Malick's transcendental maximalism.

There's also a distinct streak of vaporousness, and some outright banality – especially when Penn visits a sort of windswept Beyond, where he and everyone he's ever known get to hug each other on a beach.

Given the dismal lack of vision in contemporary Hollywood, it might seem churlish to cavil at Malick for overdoing it – and, mark you, The Tree of Life seems a mere shrub when you hear he's now planning a six-hour version. But when Malick strives to show us the very origin of being, is he being visionary, or a little presumptuous? I don't mean this morally or religiously, simply that he's prone to overkill – not to say kitsch.

At one point, Jack whispers (to God, presumably), "I want to see what you see" – and that, apparently, is Malick's goal. The Tree of Life doesn't just offer a God's-eye-view of the universe, it aspires to be the film that the deity would make if He wielded a movie camera. But I doubt that even God would have got this crazy, exalted movie financed – for that, you really have to be Terrence Malick.

Next Week:

John Walsh wraps up Harry Potter

Film Choice

Still deeply strange after all these years – Alain Resnais' 1961 masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad returns, with Delphine Seyrig reigning stylish and perplexing at the centre of the maze. Divorce Iranian style is the subject of Berlin Festival prizewinner A Separation, a tense, absorbing domestic drama – and a surprise box-office hit in France.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits