In his impressionistic, periodically gripping The Tree Of Life, writer-director Terrence Malick connects an adrift middle-aged man’s toxic childhood memories with the origin of the universe, Earth’s creation, the debut of single-celled organisms and the age of dinosaurs.

Malick’s recurring scenes of a cauldron of planet- and life-building imagery - including hazy light in darkness, volcanic eruptions, clouds and ash and tumbling water - drove about a dozen people from a local theater during an early showing last weekend.

Those who tolerated Malick’s abstractionism, however, also witnessed a universal American drama featuring one of Brad Pitt’s strongest performances.

Playing a 1950s-era father of three sons, Pitt stars in The Tree Of Life’s nonnatural history segments, which make up most of the film. While much of this more conventional part of the film is expressed through whispered, fragmented voiceovers and nonchronological scenes, Malick casts the overall progression of a Midwestern family’s disintegration with a craftsman’s detail and an artist’s soul-exposing honesty.

Moviegoers see Pitt’s character, identified only as Mr. O’Brien, and his wife, identified as Mrs. O’Brien, as a young Catholic couple in the early bliss of their life together. They have a child, Jack, who shares the wonder of his own new life with his loving, tolerant mother. To the accompaniment of joyful classical music, the days pass happily.

But Jack’s parents, as explained earlier in the film during of one of its frequent voiceovers, represent two ways of life. She is grace, which accepts slights and rejects greed. He is nature, which seeks to shape the world and please itself.

“Your mother is na?ve,” Jack’s blustery dad insists. “The world lives by trickery. If you wanna succeed, you can’t be too good.”

Played by Pitt with disturbing certitude, Mr. O’Brien poisons his own well. While there are no statistics for the number of American dads during the 1950s and ‘60s who fit O’Brien’s profile, Pitt projects an archetypal vision of him.

Turning bitter and cruel, O’Brien punishes his conflicted oldest son Jack for his own perceived failures.

O’Brien berates both Jack and second son R.L. for trivialities and magnifies his ill-conceived notions of how life should really go into do-or-die importance. All of this builds a wall of anger between the father and the sons who grow to loathe the man they previously loved.

In the midst of the conflict, Jessica Chastain plays the boys’ mother, a nearly silent young woman who’s essentially angelic. Mrs. O’Brien is grace, after all, to her husband’s nature.

Chastain fulfills her assignment beautifully, though her character is unrealistically flawless, except, perhaps, for her bad choice in a husband.

First-time actor Hunter McCracken, discovered on school playground in Clifton, Texas, carries Jack’s burden admirably. Playing the adult Jack, the film’s other big name, Sean Penn, rarely appears.

The theory behind Jack as an adult trapped in disturbing memories of childhood seems solid but Penn’s meandering scenes are almost as superfluous as Malick’s Scenes From The Cosmos. The superb drama within The Tree Of Life, however, is worth waiting for despite the excess that surrounds it.