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:

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