The specific subject of Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life is a mid-century, middle-class, middle-American family—dysfunction and tragedy played out in Norman Rockwell light.
Malick isn’t big on specificity, though, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that what he’s really taking on with this movie is no less than the Meaning of Life, the inscrutable Fruit and Root of the title Tree.
Malick’s story concerns the O’Briens, of boomer-era Waco, Texas: Dad (Brad Pitt), who gave up his dream to be a classical pianist for a career as an industrial engineer; the radiant and saintly Mom (Jessica Chastain); and three boys. The eldest of these, Jack (played by Sean Penn as an adult and by the terrific Hunter McCracken as a preteen), is our point of view for most of the film.
It’s an iconic American motif; what makes The Tree of Life different from innumerable other treatments is, first of all, Malick’s narrative style. The story is given to us in elliptical fragments, mostly brief, often enigmatic, seemingly meant to suggest snatches of memory.
In its broader organization, it’s also suggestive of a piece of symphonic music, with movements: a light and joyous passage devoted to the mother, a brooding one for the father, a turbulent one for the boy’s sexual awakening, and so forth (the powerful score is by Alexander Desplat).
The past and the present, the dramatic and the trivial, are freely mixed with scenes of the characters wandering in expressionistic landscapes. It’s disorienting at first, and some of the questions that arise about exactly what’s happened to the family remain ambiguous.
But the wisps and glimpses of the story accrue emotional force, and most of what’s onscreen is superbly done—it includes, among other merits, one of Brad Pitt’s best performances, a turn of almost Brando-like vibrancy. Still, what we aren’t shown can be exasperating.
Secondly, The Tree of Life is remarkable for Malick’s ambitiousness of scope: In addition to emotional conflicts—career and personal disappointments turn Dad from a stern and demanding but by no means unloving father to repressive tyrant—and coming-of-age drama, the family is also visited by heartbreak and loss.
They cry out to the Almighty, as people do in such times, with the Eternal Questions: “Who are You? What are we to You?” And Malick takes his un-ironic best shot at giving them, and us, an answer, in visual terms.
The oddest branch on The Tree of Life is a lengthy, epic special-effects sequence depicting the formation of the Cosmos, and the development of life on Earth, from slimy blobs and worms to plesiosaurs and dinosaurs. It’s a majestic free-standing episode, inevitably reminiscent, in atmosphere, of Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey (Kubrick crony Douglas Trumbull reportedly worked on the effects), but what, you might well ask, does this titanic spectacle have to do with the O’Briens of Waco, Texas?
The question could be answered in more than one way. It could be that Malick is saying to the bereaved questioner, in the manner of a rationalist-era Voice of God to Job:
In light of this magnificent, terrible, pitiless, glorious pageant, how dare you ask for an explanation for your sufferings?
I don’t think, so, though. I think he’s trying to put personal and family travails into a cosmic context—to suggest that our lives are every bit as important, in the grand scheme of things, as exploding suns and volcanoes and primordial monsters.
The film seems in some sense theistic in outlook, though not simple-mindedly so, and the point seems to be that human life and our interpersonal connections do have metaphysical or transcendental significance, even if we can’t quite understand it.
Of course, Malick’s depiction of The Grand Scheme of Things is just that—a depiction. Your own sensibility will have a lot to do with whether it repels you or thrills you, whether it seems pretentious and presumptuous or an audacious and visionary use of the medium.
For me, it was the latter.
Malick, now 67, has made only five features as a director. His marvelous debut, 1973’s Badlands, holds up as a classic; I’ve found most of his subsequent work interesting but diffuse.
But The Tree of Life, for all its loose ends and ramblings, strikes me as another that may still look like a classic four decades from now.