Terrence Malick, the wandering auteur, has directed only five features in the thirty-eight years since he scored a major critical success with his 1973 debut film, Badlands, an artistic road movie starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as natural-born killers on a spree. His second picture, Days of Heaven (1978), is an elliptical romance; his third, The Thin Red Line (1998), is a philosophical war picture; and his fourth, The New World (2005), is a Wagnerian retelling of the Pocahontas story. Each is experimental and unorthodox—enough so to forestall profits at the box office—and each opens intriguing, new perspectives on the nature, purpose, and possibilities of cinema itself.

The Tree of Life continues this trajectory in fascinating ways, extending Malick’s lifelong project of blending film and philosophy into areas of autobiography and religion. On one level it’s a domestic drama and coming-of-age tale, centering on a boy...

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