Dir. Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick's new film has a couple of big name stars, sweeping vistas, extraordinary camera work and plenty of dialogue, but you could hardly call it a narrative feature. Rather, it's a kind of rooted meditation, considering our lives in the context of a much larger scope of things, a bit like that infamous hierarchal map that can track down to the smallest molecules and atoms all the way out to the largest expanses of the known universe.
There might be a story at work, but it's hardly the stuff of plot synopsis. Generally speaking, the film, when it is focused on people and not the natural world, follows the early life trajectories of a young family in Waco, the hard-driven father (Brad Pitt), strict and overbearing at times but not without compassion; his wife (Jessica Chastain), flirty and loving with her three sons, but with little of the authority their father imparts, and the boys themselves, Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest, and his two younger brothers, played by Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan. One of the younger brothers is eventually killed -- presumably in Viet Nam, but never actually specified -- an event that haunts the present-day Jack (played by Sean Penn), who is fabulously successful, working in big city Houston, but spiritually unfulfilled and still struggling with his relationship with his father.
The story, then, concerns the death of a child and the loss of innocence, but it does the film a complete disservice to suggest a standard sort of arc is involved. This isn't the story of grief told in microcosm, it's quite the opposite: The story of human existence in macrocosm. It doesn't build scene upon scene in a linear fashion, crafting a dramatic story of pain and redemption. Instead, it takes snippets of things: moments of uncommon beauty and joy, and juxtaposes them against a much larger backdrop of history, beginning with the formation of the earth itself, and the primordial ooze that eventually became the dinosaurs. Just the same, it also doesn't strive to be some sort of cosmic history lesson, retelling the scope of human history and their effect on the planet. Malick's vision, intoned in VO by Chastain and McCracken, lies in the idea of grace and nature. Grace concerns notions of the soul, the natural world living ever present and always; nature is the human condition, striving and ever-envious, petty and too far filled with its own importance to nourish itself properly.
The friction of the film, such as it is, is the way our childhood grace transforms into nature, almost against our wishes, and leaves us miserable and self-alienated. In one whispering VO, young adolescent Jack recognizes the growing dissonance between the two and yearns to go back to the way he used to be: "How did I lose you?" he laments, and the question remains unanswered. Malick's film doesn't offer cheap closure and easy answers, it leaves it up to you to grapple anew with his store of wisdom.