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“The Tree of Life” is visually beautiful, but with a densely overgrown story

By Carli Velocci, a third-year English major, with minors in journalism and cinema studies

For many moviegoers, watching a Terrence Malick film is like looking at a Jackson Pollack painting: It’s visually stunning but ultimately confounding.

Take, for example, “The Tree of Life,” Malick’s fifth feature-length film in his four-decade long career. “Life” is full of philosophical musings on religion and the loss of childhood innocence, but is clouded by abstract imagery and a narrative-suffocating interpretation of the origins of the universe — from the Big Bang to the Ice Age.

The story jumps back and forth between the bucolic landscape of the 1950s and modern- day America, where a middle-aged architect named Jack — played by Sean Penn —reflects on his life as a boy as a way of exploring God’s master plan. Early on, we find out that Jack has never come to grips with the death of his younger brother.

The film soars when Malick focuses on Jack’s childhood. His parents — played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain — are happily married and give birth to three sons, who live carefree lives while playing ball, going on bike rides and roughhousing on impeccably green grass.

But as Jack approaches adolescence, he peels back the façade of suburban comfort to reveal a violent and deadly underbelly. His father beats him; a house goes up in flames; his friend dies in a drowning accident.

The film is framed by an existential discussion of the existence of God and the Book of Job, which tells the story of a pious man with unwavering faith. The loss of his father’s job, his parents’ tumultuous marriage and the death of Jack’s younger compel him to reflect on God’s role in his family’s life.

In whispered voice-overs, Jack wonders what causes God to inflict so much pain onto the world. What makes him decide who gets punished and who succeeds?

Though beautifully shot and scored, Malick’s extended interpretation of the beginning of the cosmos that accompanies these internal monologues lacks rhyme or reason. What is clear is that “Life” does not paint a complete picture of Jack’s world.

Overall, the film poses more questions than answers and leaves the audience guessing about why Jack is suddenly transported from a skyscraper to a beach and why his family is drowning in a flood. These imponderables also leave me wondering why I am watching.

“The Tree of Life” is now playing at AMC Loews Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square. Check local listings for showtimes.

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