Whatever The Tree of Life means – and it will mean one thing to writer-director Terrence Malick, another thing to me and yet another thing to you – this is for certain: The movie is an invigorating work of art and far and away Malick’s best picture.
Mind you, this isn’t coming from a Malick disciple. I’ve been mixed on his previous films, alternately appreciating the artistic audaciousness while regretting their ponderous mannerisms. The Tree of Life is ponderous, to be sure, but with a tangible purpose. For once Malick’s stylistic heft and thematic weight are matched.
The picture encompasses three main movements. The central narrative – told with Malick’s usual snippets of impressionistic imagery and ruminative voiceover narration – follows a couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raising three young boys in 1950s suburbia. From there we’re taken both forwards and backwards in time. The flashes forward consist of scenes of the oldest boy as an adult (Sean Penn), while the flashbacks cover … well, pretty much everything since the beginning of time (including an extended creation sequence that plays like a Stanley Kubrick nature special).
Malick’s triumph is to meld this into one cohesive experience, to show how the universal is personal and vice versa. The common thread is a tension that all three movements share, a tension that has existed in each of Malick’s films: one between violence and beauty, terror and bliss, nature and grace.
The latter two characteristics are represented by Pitt’s domineering father and Chastain’s comforting mother. If The Tree of Life offers a reductive view of parenting, it’s because Malick uses these figures to represent the larger push and pull in the universe. This discord is felt most acutely by Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of the three boys. His early years are idyllic, bathed in the milky sunlight of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the loving attention of his parents. While moments of joy continue as Jack ages (I don’t think I’ll ever forget one shimmering, upside-down shot of the shadows of kids at play), an awareness of sin begins to creep in. His father’s discipline becomes cold and relentless; friends urge him to break windows and torment dogs. It all makes Jack confused, complicit and sick.
Malick’s movies have rarely shown such concern for the individual. Badlands centered on two legendary criminals. The Thin Red Line depicted an array of soldiers. The New World was an impressionistic consideration of historical figures John Smith and Pocohantas. Days of Heaven, Malick’s second and most acclaimed film, focused on wheat. By contrast, The Tree of Life is a story of a very particular boy whom we get to know from birth on. What’s more, Jack’s gradual realization that the universe is gorgeous and callous, comforting and cruel, is one we’ve all shared. The Tree of Life is Jack’s awakening to original sin – in his parents, his friends and even, during an agonizing scene involving a BB gun and his trusting younger brother, himself. Awash in anger and guilt, Jack wonders when and where everything went wrong. And his question reverberates through all time.
I can understand why some viewers would have trouble with the movie’s cosmological flourishes. Yet therein lies its greatness. Without the existential additives – the scenes of Penn wandering lonely landscapes, of dinosaurs contemplating life and death – The Tree of Life would simply be a visually sumptuous, unusually perceptive coming-of-age tale. With them, it’s far greater – nothing less than a thundering spiritual experience.