Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is less a narrative film with a story, than it is a visual collage of memories and ideas. It follows a single family, the O’Briens, in the small neighborhood of Waco, Texas during the 1950s. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), who represents nature, is a demanding father, and is often excessively hard on his children. It is the children, specifically Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken), whom Malick focuses on the most. Jack begins discovering the joys and pains of childhood, while turning to his mother (Jessica Chastain) to seek solace from the oppressive personality of his father. Mrs. O’Brien represents grace, and is gentler and and more approachable than her husband is. The underlying attributes of nature and grace held by the O’Brien parents conflict quite a bit with each other, sending Jack on a difficult and highly emotional journey. He asks complex questions about the meanings of life, love, and loss, even through his adulthood. Adult Jack (Sean Penn) lives in an unspecified point of time, though it is a cold future that exudes modernity through its slick, metallic surroundings.
In addition to troubled thoughts, told primarily through voice-overs (there is very little spoken dialogue), the film contains cosmic questions. We are shown a long, breathtaking scene that chronicles the Universe’s creation and expansion, from big bang through evolution. Here, Malick draws a bold parallel between the cycle of life, human emotion, and everything in between. In some ways, this is one of the most ambitious movies ever made, because it is essentially about everything.
For a film that could easily have been an epic disaster, The Tree of Life shows an undeniable level of craft. Terrence Malick creates scenes that are often so lyrically poetic, they become thrilling. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is so astoundingly beautiful that it actually adds greatly to the film’s substance. Beauty and nature are portrayed through the imagery, and get at the heart of the movie’s (many) themes. The creation of the Universe sequence is basically a screensaver, but what a gorgeous and mind-blowing screensaver it is!
With such a high level of emotional density, it is marvelous that the acting is so pitch-perfect. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain do not play black-and-white opposites; rather, they are each as complex as their sons are. While Mr. O’Brien comes across as abusive, he is really more sympathetic than that. He is a flawed character who struggles to balance his love for his children with conceptions of fierce will and control. In a sense, Mr. O’Brien almost becomes a tragic character at one point, as we see him express guilt and regret that has built up over many years. What feels so human about the drama here, is that it is not exaggerated. Malick does not pass judgement on his characters; he lets the action play out in a raw, yet beautiful fashion.
Of course, the film does has its flaws. The final act, which serves as a sort of reconciliation between characters and ideas, is nice to look at, but goes on too long. Additionally, the ambitious nature of Malick’s project doesn’t allow the concepts to always fully meld, making it sprawling and messy. However, everything is executed so diligently that the problems become quibbles, and don’t stop the movie from being a unique and rewarding artistic production.
A major accomplishment on both a visual and emotional scale, The Tree of Life is Terrence Malick’s best film since his 1973 debut, Badlands. We need more filmmakers who are unafraid to be this bold and original; directors who embrace cinema as art. Even when the movie creaks under its own weight, it remains beautiful and asks its viewers to use their minds and hearts. Malick doesn’t just shoot for the stars here: he shoots for life, the universe, and everything.