The Tree of Life is strange, vivid, at times glorious. Prominent among its features are a crumbled and exasperating narrative, little dialogue, and astonishing leaps in time — all the way back from 1950s and 60s Texas, where most of the film is set, to the creation of the universe. But what might be its most surprising aspect is its wonderment in the face of God.
This open-ended but immensely serious movie begins with a quotation from Job 38:4, 7, in which God asks Job where the mortal was when He laid the foundations of the earth.
At the start of the story (I almost said “in the beginning”), two middle-aged parents (played by Brad Pitt and newcomer Jessica Chastain) of three grown boys find out that one of the children has died. What exactly happened to him remains clouded in mystery. In their anguish, the surviving characters begin speaking to God, pleading for answers about the grand design.
This is as far as most Hollywood directors would go, but Terrence Malick is not an ordinary hack. After his classic debut Badlands in 1973, he began to grow increasingly interested in abstraction. Followup movies like Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998, his first released film in two decades), and especially The New World (2005) were content to wallow in a sort of dreamy stupor, with storytelling pushed well to the background.
The Tree of Life, too, is certainly not for all tastes. It won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. That prize usually is awarded to experimental films. But there is something special about The Tree of Life and that something is a hushed reverence for the Almighty and all His works (or, if you prefer, for the universe and all its workings).
As we learn more about the family at the center of the film, one boy (played as an adult by Sean Penn, who in some of the film’s less successful scenes spends a lot of time wandering around a rocky and deserted landscaped) gradually becomes accepting of the ways of wickedness while one of his little brothers takes on an Abel-like quality of innocence. The Pitt character, the patriarch, bears much blame for impressing sin into his oldest son, telling him that in business and in life it’s okay to cut corners. He also encourages the boy to turn to violence as a solution to problems and as a general attitude.