Film critic David Edelstein has a review of Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life," winner of this year's top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's Malick's fifth feature in a nearly 40-year film career that began with the 1973 film "Badlands." The film stars Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, and opens in New York and Los Angeles today.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "The Tree of Life" is Terrence Malick's big one - part creation epic, part oedipal family drama, an answer to Kubrick's "2001" and maybe "Paradise Lost." His films all touch on Eden, the natural world into which humans are born, and the Fall from Grace, marked by male aggression, as well as the soulless aspects of civilization.

This film has a suggestion of a narrative, but it's mostly a montage on his pet themes. I think of it as a transcendentalist church pageant in which characters whisper questions in voiceover to the Almighty: Where were you when so-and-so died? And how can I get close to you? Malick uses all his resources to trace the connections between the fleeting and the infinite. And if that sounds highfalutin', you ain't heard nothing yet.

The family is the O'Briens, who live in the 1950s in Waco, Texas. Brad Pitt plays the stern patriarch, the ivory-skinned redheaded Jessica Chastain -potentially a major actress - the diaphanous mother, the spirit of Grace. I'm not reading in. She ruminates on the way of Grace versus the way of Nature, which will make things easier if you ever have to write a term paper.

In the overture, Malick jumps all over in time. The mother gets a telegram saying one son has died - probably in a war, although it's not spelled out. There are shots of her three boys' idyllic childhood. Then Malick jumps ahead to one boy, Jack, middle-aged. He's played by Sean Penn, and seen in both a glass-and-steel metropolis and a rocky beach representing his inner universe.

Then comes nothing less than a mind-bending vision of the cosmos being formed and the beginning of life on earth: squiggly one-celled forms, jellyfish, dinosaurs. There's a shot of a fully dressed child swimming out of an underwater bedroom to the surface - a symbolic birth - into the Garden of Eden that is Waco.

The protagonist is Penn's Jack as a boy, played well by Hunter McCracken, with the perfect stuck-out ears for his father to grab. He adores his mom and wishes aloud for his dad to die - this because his dad is a disciplinarian with a thing for macho ritual.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Tree of Life")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (as Mr. O'Brien) Okay. Come on. Three quarters. Cover. You're going to cover it, right? Okay. Hit it.

(Soundbite of hands smacking together)

Mr. PITT: (as Mr. O'Brien) Come on. Nice. Nice. Harder. Nice. That's a good right. Let's see your left. This is the most important thing. Okay? You come in this way, you come in this way, you keep the guard up. Hit me. Come on, hit me. Come on. Come on. Jack, hit me. Hit me. Hit me. Come on. Come on. Here it is. Here it is. Hit me. Come on, son. Come on. Son, left. What are you doing? Brush yourself off.

EDELSTEIN: This all presages the Biblical Fall. A neighbor drowns, another is burned, and Jack blows up a nest of bird's eggs. He asks God: Why should I be good if you aren't? It's tantalizing stuff, suggesting the psychosexual underpinnings of Malick's mythic visions. But then we go right to the exodus -the family relocates - as if Malick skipped pages in the prayer book to get to the final hymn.

I know Malick nuts who've said they were so moved by "The Tree of Life," they began to shake. Then there were two women at my screening who agreed it was a self-indulgent piece of you-know-what.

It is self-indulgent, but some selves are better indulged than others, and even at his goofiest, Malick's worth the effort. His vantage is an original combination of the archetypal and the impressionistic, the camera trailing after characters and hovering. In interviews, Pitt put it well: Malick is like a guy with a big butterfly net, waiting for a moment of truth to go by. And those disconnected moments are amazingly fluid.

But Malick can be annoyingly abstract: No image is allowed to be non-archetypal, and the actors spend a lot of time tottering among trees, looking bereft, while the soundtrack serves up classical chestnuts. "The Tree of Life" is meant to portray the attempt of a man, Penn's Jack, who has fallen from grace to make peace with a God he'll never understand. But what exactly did he do wrong? Penn looks suitably stricken, but the part is underwritten, and the final imaginary sequence is an embarrassment. Malick has everything but storytelling instincts.

"The Tree of Life" doesn't jell, but I recommend the experience unreservedly. You might find it ridiculously sublime or sublimely ridiculous - or, like me, both. But it's a hell of a trip.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

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