Terrence Malick is one of a kind.  Others have tried to imitate his signature naturalistic style, but when the veteran filmmaker is at his best there are few artists who can bring cinema to such grand heights.  The only thing that has been missing from Malick's resume is, well, a substantial one.  With only five films to his credit over the past 37 years it's often easy to contemplate what we've missed during his long breaks from the director's chair.  His first three films, "Badlands," "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line" are unquestionably classics.  Unfortunately, his last big screen endeavor, "The New World," was something of a mess.   A visually stunning one, but a narrative and disappointing mess.  After some delay, Malick is back with the incredibly ambitious "Tree of Life" which screened for critics at the Cannes Film Festival and in New York and Los Angeles on Monday.

Reactions so far have been mixed and for this pundit in particular, "Tree" was a hard film to immediately digest with an snap judgment.  It's gutsy and gorgeous like many of Malick's films, but it also is stuck in some of the stylistic tendencies of repetitive cutting and voice over that worked so well in "Thin Red Line," but not in "New World."  He comes close to making it work again in "Tree," but he's saddled with too many moments he doesn't need.  Too many beats he's woven already into the fabric of his unconventional narrative.  For such a veteran filmmaker this is somewhat surprising.  Especially when you consider how long Malick and his five (yes, five) credited editors had to shape the picture in post.  Was the subject matter too personal for him?  Was it hard to gain perspective? The always publicity shy Malick may never provide an answer to those puzzling questions.

"Life" seems to tell the story of the O'Brien family lead by Brad Pitt, his wife (Jessica Chastain), their first born son Jack (a strong Hunter McCracken) and two other sons as they grow, live and love in a quiet Midwest town during the 1950's.  Pitt's character is a complex man who is frustrated by his lack of success in business and shattered dreams of becoming a professional musician.  His oldest son doesn't relate to his father and it appears through much of the film that he's harder on Jack than his other two boys.  Chastain's character, the mother, is beloved by her boys for her kindness, warmth and frivolity, but even with an exceptional turn by Chastain conveying her concern for her kids we never truly understand who she is in this family dynamic.  As the picture goes on the distance between Jack and his father seems more the fault of the son who can't seem to accept the latter's attempts at reserved affection.  This is all cross cut with a modern day storyline where a middle aged Jack (Sean Penn) seems disillusioned with his career and home life.  We know this because he looks depressed and bored as he walks aimlessly among downtown skyscrapers and sits in business meetings with obscured co-workers.  Supposedly connecting the two stories is the death of one of Jack's brothers at the age of 19.  Which brother that is is never entirely clear nor are the details of his passing, but one has to assume it's the younger more artistic one that Pitt's character was most kind too.  Chastain's most impressive scenes in the film, which occur very early on, chronicle her character's  heartache over her boy's death.  It's a plot point that, in theory, should bind the picture's narrative threads together, but doesn't. It almost becomes a red herring to the other themes Malick wants to explore.

Surprisingly, the one element in Malick's mix you might assume would work the least is his desire to intertwine the modern day story with a look back at the creation of the universe and the early days of the planet.  These scenes are simply the most captivating moments in the picture accomplished with superb and subtle visual effects.  One of the most affecting is when an injured dinosaur believes it's going to be killed by a stronger one.  Instead, the more dangerous animal simply leaves it be and moves on.  Malick no doubt means for this to be allegory of some kind to a relationship in his '50s family but that's the storyline that fail him.  He captures so much of an interfamily strife and yet the contrast of the two themes becomes irrelevant.  Malick spends too much time repeating the same points between young Jack and his father that the emotional power of the grander canvas quickly fades away. 

Pitt is solid here with yet another fine performance for his increasingly gaudy resume.  As previously noted, Chastain is even better.  Audiences will get an even better sense of her impressive range when "The Debt" and "Take Shelter" are released later this year.  Chastain should figure in the end of year awards race, but likely for "Shelter" and not "Tree of Life."  The young boys are particularly remarkable with big kudos going to casting director Francine Maisler for finding them.

Malick's other main collaborators on the film, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot "The New World") , production designer Jack Fisk  and the amazing composer Alexandre Desplat, are quite remarkable as their previous work would suggest.  Fox Searchlight will have to hope they are remembered by their peers during awards season.

"Life" may not signal Malick's return to the greatness of his first three pictures, but let's hope it sparked the creative juices for his next picture, a currently untitled romance, starring Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Rachel Weisz and Javier Bardem.  Already in post-production, that Oscar bait picture will be released sometime in 2012.

"The Tree of Life" opens in limited release on May 27.