Here's what happened at the screening I went to.
All was quiet during the movie's opening section, a nonlinear exploration of the effects of the death of a son on a family, hopping back and forth in time, and largely without dialogue. Then, proving that a flashback is only as limited as your imagination, the grown-up son (an unnecessary Sean Penn) decides to flash back onto his childhood, beginning with the creation of the universe, through the formation of stars and planets, pausing briefly to examine some dinosaurs, and then rolling up to his actual memories.
The cinematography here is stunning, enhanced by the meditative music. Still, several people left during this 20-minute interlude, most of them vocally angry at what was happening (or not happening), and a few of them laughing at the breathy platitudes from Jessica Chastain that punctuated the tone poem with all the aplomb of a first-year film student. (That one I don't blame them for; nothing disrupts footage of star nurseries like Chastain whisperingly demanding to know where God was when her son died. Accidental subtext: God was a little busy.)
After the beautiful but languid flashback through time and space comes a naturalistic, Impressionistic chunk of film detailing our hero's childhood, with a focus on his sometimes abusive father and his younger brother. While not quite linear, this section was far easier to follow; however, the walkouts continued as the study in masculinity got more claustrophobic.
These walkouts were a different statement altogether; if it was the lack of narrative estranging the audience before, there was certainly one here, protagonist and all. However, these walkouts also didn't surprise me, since this was also the part of the film that left me cold. While beautifully shot (it is Malick) and anchored by a pair of remarkable young actors playing the brothers, the only moments of this section that resonated were those that echoed back to the cosmic interlude, as when Paleolithic underwater shots appear again when the brothers go swimming, or when a moment of relief between the brothers reminds the viewer of a similar mercy shown by one dinosaur to another (no, seriously).
Otherwise, somehow, the film falters here. This often-standard coming-of-age set piece shows us glimpses without ever quite forming the whole; the mother, whose voice was so present in the previous section whether you wanted it or not, all but disappears into a soft cloud of beatific naïveté, appearing at intervals to be childlike and/or victimized silently by her husband so her son can resent it. (Her next big dialogue happens at film's end, during the beachside epiphany, where she offers her hands to the sky and sweet-nothings, "I give him to you," in case you were worried the finale would skimp on the VO.)
I came out of the movie knowing it was made with care, with a particular point of view; it was beautiful and heartfelt; it had taken some risks, and had made some mistakes. That made it hard to dissect cleanly; however, that put it in good company with others of that rare and polarizing genre, the Glorious Mess.
This is an era of film by committee, where studios seek to greenlight movies with the largest possible demographic, whether or not the property itself is worth it. (Everyone who watched TV as a kid in the 80s, you are collectively responsible for the Smurfs movie. Think about that.) In this atmosphere, the movies that are good are blandly, safely so; the ones that are terrible are stretched thin across too many focus groups.
An auteur film is a more personal statement, and is likely to make some mistakes in the course of telling its story. The difference is that those mistakes are often interesting, and that what the story gets right is often sublime. It all works out to a Glorious Mess.
Another notable Glorious Mess is 2007's Sunshine, in which director Danny Boyle sets a motley crew on a spaceship tasked with restarting a dying sun, and follows their voyage as they contend with one disaster after another, until God Himself may or may not become involved. The cast is excellent, the art direction and effects unique, and the script compelling for the first two acts, in which the characters naturally fall into conflict, and small, human errors have catastrophic consequences that force life-and-death decisions. (It's a rare science fiction movie that has its crew members gather to determine the fate of a crewman in a self-inflicted coma, since there's not enough oxygen to support him.)
In the third act, the crew touch down at the crash site of their ill-fated predecessor, where the film takes a hairpin turn into a slasher movie and the cast is eradicated one at a time by a monster who turns out to be an extremely sunburned Mark Strong as the captain of the previous ship, who interrupts his murderous rampage at regular intervals to moan in VO about having seen God at the center of the Sun. Even more strangely, in its last few minutes the film shakes off this entire act as though Boyle just really owed Strong a favor and had to throw him two weeks' work; the story continues from a point of conflict as if he'd never existed, and in so doing it confronts the question of mortality and divinity in a way both cosmic and intimate, with incisive craft (and one of the best movie scores of the last decade).
Sunshine had every component in place to make it one of the most interesting SF films of the last decade; however, the monster-movie spliced into it baffled reviewers and audiences alike, and the film tanked upon release. However, as most Glorious Messes do, it had enough going for it that it continues to grow an appreciative audience, with a small bonus resurgence each time one of its actors gets a headline role (expect Chris Evans to drive some serious Netflix traffic for this puppy).
There are other Glorious Messes in recent years that tend to make the mainstream radar only in their commercial or critical demise; think Solaris or The Fountain, or any film you secretly adore that's on the tip of your tongue as you read this. Often they become punchlines because of their outrageous elements, languid scripts, or their convoluted narratives. They tend to share a general speculative sensibility that becomes a backdrop to the thematic explorations, which are often so important that they overshadow all other concerns.
I still don't know how I feel about The Tree of Life. But the way I engage with it, in the end, isn't what matters; the fact that such a film gets made in the first place is a triumph of its own in the age of Transformers 3. (THREE. We allowed THREE.) And that's the heart of a Glorious Mess; a rare bird and a flawed one, but often worthwhile, and in an era of film such as we are suffering through, it's a necessary one.