Waco-set 'Tree of Life' is beautiful, but baffling

Brad Pitt (left) plays Laramie Eppler's father in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."

It’s strictly a coincidence of timing that filmmaker Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” arrives in theaters this summer, but it comes as the antithesis of the typical summer movie.

It’s visually rich, gorgeously photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, with images on which the eye lingers for beauty and meaning. Its special effects, from shots of a star-studded cosmos to an encounter between dinosaurs, are more than eye candy. Its lessons are elliptical, not literal, and an event that changes its characters’ lives happens off-camera. It opens with a quote from the Old Testament’s book of Job, and classical music drives a large part of its soundtrack.

Much of the film’s text is spoken in voice-over, particularly by Jessica Chastain as the mother of the O’Brien family, and most of the dialogue can be read as prayer. And rather than an ending that neatly ties up the film’s story, “The Tree of Life’s” final sequence may divide the audience into those nodding their heads in wordless agreement, those scratching their heads in puzzlement and those shaking their heads at the loss of two hours they’d prefer to have spent at “The Hangover 2” or “Bad Teacher.”

No frothy, disposable summer entertainment here, this is a Terrence Malick film, the most personal and spiritual of the five that he’s written and directed. It grapples with the meaning of life, encapsulated in a Texas boy’s childhood and set in a literally cosmic context, and its value lies in its ability to sharpen one’s vision and attention on the world in which we live.

Malick’s visual style forces the viewer into his rhythm, to look closely at what’s on the screen and wonder why. One may leave “The Tree of Life” with more questions than answers, but one may also see, with a refocused eye, more beauty in the natural world and in the people around us.

At its core is a family story, told in flashback by a successful, but haunted and alienated architect Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), still trying to make sense of a brother’s death years after the fact. He recalls a boyhood pulled between the philosophical poles of his father (Brad Pitt), who believes in a tooth-and-claw nature where one must fight to get ahead, and his mother (Chastain), who’s more open to the beauty and grace inherent in the created order.

The young Jack (Hunter McCracken) gravitates toward his mother’s softer, gentler side, but as he matures, he sees more to his father a church going man who squelches his love and talent in classical music for a career in industry, only to see his ideas stolen by another firm and his job eventually downsized. Jack’s mother, on the other hand, lacks a needed firmness and discipline over her boys in dad’s absence. Jack himself finds stirrings of violence and sexuality from within as he grows older.

The narrative stringing this together, however, is far from linear and chronological, wrapped in images and symbols that span the creation of stars, the evolution of life, a baby’s birth, a prehistoric velociraptor that unexpectedly shows mercy to a dying plant-eater, a free-ranging boy’s life in a leafy neighborhood of front porches and open windows, and a mysterious confluence of swirling, milky colors that suggests, perhaps, a creative, watching presence.

It’s a movie made for English teachers enamored of symbolism: water that appears at both birth and death; doorways, windows and staircases; and, naturally, trees, most of which are shot looking up from the ground with the sky “where God lives,” as the mother puts it, seen through leaves and branches stretching heavenward.

“The Tree of Life” begs for a spiritual interpretation of life, with the world as an intricate, beautiful creation of a loving, gracious and forgiving God. It’s an interpretation, however, that sidesteps orthodox Christian dogma, notions of sin and punishment, heaven and hell.

“The Tree of Life” is the Austin-based Malick’s most autobiographical film. His family lived in Waco in the mid-1950s, on the northern end of MacArthur Drive, and he was the oldest of three boys. Like Jack’s brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) in the film, Malick’s real-life brother Larry played guitar. Larry traveled to Spain to study under guitar master Andres Segovia, but reportedly broke his hands in frustration at a lack of progress and later committed suicide in 1968.

Years later, Malick’s other brother, Chris, was seriously burned in a car accident that killed Chris’ wife; Chris died in 2008. In his book on film directors of the 1970s, “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls,” Peter Biskind suggested Malick was haunted for years by Larry’s death and noted he was “always preoccupied with faith and religion.”

Most of “The Tree Of Life’s” Waco scenes were shot in Smithville, near Austin, although a sharp eye will see several shots of Castle Heights homes and a downtown Waco shot with the ALICO Building in the background. A city truck spraying DDT through the neighborhood for mosquito suppression — yes, they did that then — has “Waco” on its side, but that’s one of the rare overt references to Waco in the film. (That, and a copy of the Waco Tribune-Herald that the father’s reading in one scene.)

Its slower pace, rich photography and meatier subject matter makes “The Tree of Life” no summer throwaway, but a film to savor and ponder, even if its riddles and mysteries remain bound at movie’s end.