Visionary director Terrence Malick tackles the meaning of life in this quiet, meditative film (his fifth in nearly thirty years). Brad Pitt takes on his most challenging role as a tough but loving father in the 1960s, whose heavy demands on his three children have resounding–and heartbreaking–repercussions. Jessica Chastain, of the early-Streepian career trajectory, appears in yet another 2011 film, as Pitt’s wife. She’s the antithesis of her husband–a free spirit who grows weary of shielding her children from their father’s heavy hand. These scenes are presented as the reflections of the middle child, now an adult played by a relatively restrained Sean Penn, who tries to piece together the cause of a recent family tragedy. Amid the interchange between modern day and the Norman Rockwell Americana 60s, Malick gives us bold, dramatic, even reckless glimpses of the history of the universe, perhaps as a near-literal interpretation of life’s fleeting chance.
Few directors are better than Malick at using cinematography to tell their story. Here, he and photographer Emmanuel Lubezki juxtapose the quaint, small-town life of the 60s with massive steel and glass structures of a modern city. The evolution sequences are a kaleidoscope of color and brazen orchestration–so heedlessly brave and absorbing, I found myself wanting more. Pitt is very good here, in a sad, nuanced performance that I think will earn him an Oscar nomination. And Chastain seems to be hitting every note right in each of her many recent roles. This a powerful, challenging, maddening, wholly audacious film, and one of the best of 2011.
Some will be turned off by the non-linear narrative that takes patience and fortitude to navigate; but the journey is worth it. So too, the near-operatic evolution interludes may strike some as a series of bizarre non-sequiturs; but, literal as it is, I think Malick made the right choice to show the smallness of the human existence, however outrageous the conceit may appear on first viewing.