I am writing this just a couple hours after seeing the film. I actually came home and had to take a nap. Not because I was tired, but because I truly believe my brain had to shut down and process what I had just seen.
I have read everyone's response so far in this thread, and you all use such big words.
I can only discuss this film cinematically, not philosophically. I have seen all of Malick's films and have appreciated all of them as great cinema, but this might be the first time I emotionally connected to anything he had made. I honestly could have sat there and watched several more hours of these young boys interact with each other and their parents. It was storytelling unlike any I had seen before. Maybe it is how prevalent "Reality Television" has become, but there were several times I had to remind myself this was not a documentary I was watching. In some ways, I wish Brad Pitt and Sean Penn had not been cast in the film. My familiarity with them is what kept reminding me we were not watching the most intimate moments of a real family.
We often hear the refrain "Show, don't tell" when it comes to film. The real difference between mainstream cinema and art house cinema is how explicitly everything has to be spelled out for everyone. People feel like they have been ripped off if the movie does not hold their hand. People feel angry if everyone in the audience does not arrive to the same place once the credits role, as if people having different reactions and interpretations to a film is some sort of insult. Perhaps people are embarrassed if they do not understand and experience what their friends or critics understand and experience from the film they just watched. Malick trusts us to figure things out, not through dialogue or precisely shot scenes mapping out every emotion or thought of the characters.
A wonderful example of this on the simplest level is a moment toward the end where the two oldest boys go off in a field and hold each other and cry. No words are said, and nothing in the proceeding scenes have prepared us for why they are being so emotional. In the next scene we see the family packing up the car with all their belongings and driving away from their home. The boys were crying because they are leaving the place they grew up, the only place they have ever known. Other movies would have to make sure every audience member knew this with some silly narration or expository dialogue. Malick gives us the visual cues, and then expects us to keep up. If you miss it, then you do not deserve any special help to have the point made clear.
Another wonderful scene which would have played very differently in another film is right after the older brother, Jack, shot his younger brother, R.L., with the bb gun. We see them sitting by the window, and Jack kisses R.L.'s arm, which I saw as him saying he was sorry to his brother. R.L. wipes away his brother's kiss, which was him saying he did not accept his apology. Jack again kisses his brother's arm, and R.L. again wipes away his brother's kiss. Then Jack hands R.L. a piece of wood and says his brother can hit him if he wants. R.L. pretends to hit his brother, smiles, and then puts the wood down. Next we see the two brothers embracing, all is forgiven. I found this to be a beautiful moment, and one so "authentic" it could never exist in a mainstream film. Audiences would need the traditional scene of yelling, blame, maybe some tears, and then finally forgiveness and resolution. They need everything spelled out for them, but here you only get the emotion. This is how forgiveness feels.
Side note: I have read a couple reviews describe this scene as homoerotic, which I find very odd. Since when is a simple kiss on the arm between two brothers in any way "erotic"? We have seriously lowered the bar on homoeroticism if something so non-sexual can be placed in that category.
I have many other thoughts and feelings on this film, but I want to put more space (and sleep) between me and the film. I also want to give some responses to other people's reactions once I have a better grip on my own.
In terms of Oscar chances, I think Terrence Malick certainly has a very good shot at being nominated for director. If we still were only nominating five films for Best Picture, THE TREE OF LIFE would probably not make it. Much like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or BLUE VELVET, this feels like a film the other branches will not know what to do with (except the cinematographers) but the directors will want to reward Malick's singular vision. With ten nominees though, THE TREE OF LIFE could have a shot. Only a few people have to put it as their number one film for it to receive a nomination. I think enough people will include it. Possible nominations: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, and maybe even F/X (hey, if HEREAFTER can be nominated for its quick tsunami scene then the creation of the cosmos could certainly earn this film a nomination).
As for the battle between THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE TREE OF LIFE Italiano started (not your intention, I know), I would say THE SOCIAL NETWORK is prose while THE TREE OF LIFE is poetry. In literature, prose is not better than poetry. They are just very different forms of the same art. THE THREE OF LIFE is an art film in every sense of the phrase, and I am happy it exists in the world.
"When it comes to the subject of torture, I trust a woman who was married to James Cameron for three years."
-- Amy Poehler in praise of Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow