Tree of Life opens with a quote from the Bible, specifically Job 38: 4, 7 – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
From this, darkness, and then the first illuminating flames of the universe’s birth, underscored by the voices of the O’Briens, that family in Waco, speaking to God in hushed tones that sometimes frame themselves as confessions and other times as pointed questions. Evoking the language of prayer, the spirit of art, and the patience of meditation, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life erupts forth from the screen with an impact likely to toss audiences on either side of a vast divide. Malick has crafted his magnum opus; a work of significant beauty, that while sometimes maddening and never easy, expands the notion of what movies can be, what they may reveal, and how they can inspire us to feel.
The film itself sits outside of one single narrative flow, and Malick has juxtaposed the finite cares of fragile human life against a backdrop of grand and cosmic proportions. In some ways, the entire first hour functions as a dramatic distillation of the book of Job. When Jessica Chastain’s Mrs. Obrien receives a telegram informing her of her nineteen year-old son’s death, she internally petitions God for a reason. Those much touted and spine-tingling images of Earth’s primordial growing pains are presented as her answer. In scripture, God details the fearsome handiwork of his creation to Job by presenting a great sea beast, and then asking ‘Can you draw out Leviathan with an hook through his nose?’ Malick’s version imagines a majestic plesiosaur stranded on a beach at sunrise; to drive home the mortality of miracles, it lies bleeding, ragged bites from a school of hammerheads scouring it’s flank.
Collaborating with the great production designer Jack Fisk, special effects veteran Douglas Trumball (2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running), and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick delivers the films’ visual pièce de résistance—a virtually silent (save for a few voice-overs) half-hour sequence that tracks from the moment the universe was conceived right down to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Boasting special effects more impressive than anything seen in this summer’s bevy of blockbusters, Malick and his crew make those fantastical images stand apart in their naturalism. Spoken by Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien early on is the theme of the entire endeavor: there are two paths through life, one of nature and one of grace. Nature insists upon itself, grace takes no care for its own welfare.
It isn’t seamless, but the sight of a saurian raptor placing it’s taloned foot on a downed hadrosaur has all of the curious, bemused poetry seen in The Thin Red Line or The New World. The billowing, hundred-story clouds of a global volcanic venting are far more staggering and provoking than some CGI trinket. Against this shaping violence are the enrapturing dioramas of new life; oceans of thriving jellyfish, dewy Cretaceous fens, and the microscopic soup of life being knit together by a precise and unseen initiator. Later, towards the film’s final passages we see a similar event further down the line—the death of the universe, captured in the icy tones of a cold, alien twilight.
Delivered as pure cinema, that sustainednatural history is reminiscent of the mind-bending trip of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike Kubrick’s decidedly impersonal science fiction, there’s actual warmth and human feeling in Tree of Life. Surprisingly, the most effective and transporting passages of the picture focus on Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and their three young boys. The oldest son, Jack, is also seen as an adult (Sean Penn) during the film’s bookends, wandering in between the lonely, concrete jungle of Dallas skyscrapers while ruminating on his childhood in Waco. In scenes of a stranger nature we see him making his way across an unnamed desert wilderness that opens onto a vast ocean, upon whose shores walk those who have since passed on. The nostalgic visions of children growing up in a small town vibrate with the same wisdom and generous feeling as Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Dandelion Wine.
Although it isn’t parsing a particular narrative, the Texas segment feels nearly autobiographical, and what resonates is the way all of this seems both universal and very personal. I did not grow up in the time period portrayed—it belonged to my father and his brothers—but there is much I do recognize, including warm summer nights spent running through cool glades, down neighborhood blocks with sparklers in hand, and how siblings of a certain age can vacillate between affection and rambunctious squabbling. The conflicting feelings of adolescence sit at the frame of a world encompassed by mother and father, whose values, beliefs and expressions of care determine the boundaries of it. Dazzling vignettes lovingly etched by Lubezki’s lens chronicle young Jack’s coming-of-age and how he nestles himself in his mother’s nurturing love and resists and strains against his father’s discipline and standards.
Brad Pitt is astoundingly strong as Mr. O’Brien, giving a turn so nuanced and multi-faceted that it causes us to reconsider his talent. He’s always been good, but here he’s playing O’Brien on more than one channel; making slight variations according to the way each family member sees him. There’s the good, struggling provider who does what he thinks is right by his family—the man as he sees himself –and the distant, occasionally gentle, but stern overseer—the one Jack and his brothers see–the frustrated, loving husband , and then, just the man—perhaps as God sees him– living according to nature but wishing in his heart he better understood grace. The scene where he sits at the piano playing notes in accompaniment to his young son’s guitar strumming is both subtle and overwhelming in how it burrows to the core of the character.
Jessica Chastain is lovely, vulnerable and fiercely maternal without coming off as a glossy, bland symbol. Sometimes glimpsed dancing in the air like a dervish or encased in glass Sleeping Beauty style—all of these fantasies idealized by Jack—Chastain must find truth within a role that, by nature, often feels like it’s too good to be true. The breakout performance here is Hunter McCracken as young Jack. McCracken is every bit plausible as a kid of the 1950’s, but beyond that he makes us believe in the transforming experience he’s going through; adolescence. When he sneaks into a neighbor’s house and steals a slip—feeling an almost crippling guilt over it—the confusion and resentment in his eyes when he returns home are completely convincing. In this case, it’s likely that the young actor is manifesting emotions that he doesn’t personally understand, working beyond his grasp and doing it nearly effortlessly. His internal monologues are some of the most captivating to ever grace a Malick film.
The trick here is that all of the performances and visuals are filtered through the idea that these are adult Jack’s recollections of –and reconciliation with– the memories of his younger self. In this way Jack is a surrogate for Malick, and this knowledge makes Tree of Life seem less arbitrary and random than its structure suggests. The fairy tale interludes, the grand orchestrations of the cosmos, those dinosaurs and the Judeo-Christian eschatology could be the concoction of an Eisenhower era kid who fell asleep with one hand on the Bible and one on a fifth grade Earth Science textbook. The obviously imaginary image of a boy swimming out of his submerged childhood room only drives home the concept of the entire experience as a reverie viewed from different positions of a man’s life. It isn’t a specific reading of the film as much as it is the vehicle that Malick uses to take us on his magical mystery tour.
On a personal level, I was swept up in the film and touched by it, reminded of my own childhood and the way in which life slides along, losing pieces of what we know and understand as it goes. I have watched many relatives and a few friends leave this world—more are on their way out as time passes—and am now at a point where I can remember my father at the age I am right now. The examples of care and charity demonstrated to me by my parents, as they are to Jack by his mother, have come to inform the person I am. What Jack’s father has given him is there too, finally appreciated by both on that farther shore. Tree of Life isn’t interested in giving a definitive answer to anything but wants to make known that questions can be felt as deeply as answers. This is why it strikes a chord. All that can be understood by Jack in the end is this. People die. I have been loved. In the face of death, I can choose to love back. The rest is there to be contemplated, asked, lifted up in prayer or tested by time. Here at last is a film bold enough to consider all of it.