Review in a Hurry: In a series of beautiful but leisurely paced scenes, a middle-aged man (Sean Penn) remembers a childhood tragedy, contemplates what God's role in it was and imagines how he may fit into the grand scheme of eternity. At least, we think that's what's going on. There's room for interpretation, but if you can let yourself go with the flow it's pretty awe-inspiring at times, and sure to be Oscar-nominated.
The Bigger Picture: Pity the average moviegoer who randomly buys a ticket thinking this is going to be some typical coming-of-age tale starring Brad Pitt. What we have here is a limited-release art movie with a capital A, the latest attempt by a serious filmmaker to duplicate nonlinear memories and accomplish an existential epic on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Because director Terrence Malick (The New World) is less interested in traditional narrative than Stanley Kubrick ever could be, The Tree of Life has inherently less mass appeal. But it does have a point, one it spells out explicitly in voice-over after the visuals have seeped it into your subconscious: Without love in your life, everything can seem like a set of images that just go by (like much of this movie), but there's more love in your life than you think, and in the face of the infinite, it's important to recognize that fact.
To a casual viewer, it may not even be clear that Sean Penn is the older version of the child we see. Malick isn't interested in whether or not you get that; he doesn't even seem to name his characters, at least not onscreen. That this isn't a linear tale is a given: We begin with Penn in a glassy skyscraper, flash back to the '50s, then even further to the beginning of life on earth and then settle, more-or-less, back in the '50s, but not in a straight line—a major character dies early on yet remains part of the tale as a living person.
Younger Penn (Hunter McCracken) has a contentious relationship with his traditionalist father (Pitt), a man who has given up on his dreams to be a family man and demands his boys call him "sir." After the aforementioned death happens, things get more and more strained, leading (apparently) to the alienation felt by adult Penn.
That's pretty much it for plot. There's been much talk about the dinosaur sequence, but they're brief and slightly fake-looking. Plus it doesn't even feature the cool dinosaurs—mostly just some smaller ones.
All of this is longer than it needs to be, and Malick's fascination with underwater shots is overly indulged, but it all builds to a powerful ending. Beginners might want to watch Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain first, as it's a much more story-driven exploration of similar themes, and ultimately the better movie. For what it sets out to do, however, The Tree of Life is a total success. Just not one that'll be everyone's speed.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Even if you do like this sort of thing, be sure to have a caffeinated beverage handy just in case the hypnotic becomes too soporific.