Terrence Malick's fifth film traverses billions of years, chronicling the big bang, the spewing of lava from volcanoes, the successive emergence of single-celled organisms, invertebrates and dinosaurs, followed by mass extinction and rebirth, all to settle on the haggard, self-regarding face of Sean Penn. Buried under the millennia of earthly progress, which we seem to watch in real time, is a story of a Texas childhood in the 1950s. Most interesting, however, is the portrait of the father, played by Brad Pitt. Tightly wound and self-righteous, grimly determined to be an impregnable fortress of rectitude and solidity for his family, Pitt's Mr. O'Brien is terrifying and pathetic. Pitt knows this character, and he's utterly convincing; it's one of the few occasions I've been able to forget that he's a movie star. Malick's pictures are always pretty, but The Tree of Life
is finally an overblown, overlong wallow in eye candy, vaporous spirituality and whispered voiceovers that promise pleasure and a climax that never arrives.