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.
This East of Eden aspect mingles beautifully with a 2001: A Space Odyssey quality: Malick gorgeously imagines the creation of Earth and its development through periods of fire and mayhem. We see wonderfully done shots of the early days of the planet that include images of dinosaurs. At one point, one dinosaur lies stricken and perhaps dying on the ground while another dinosaur comes up and seems bent on killing it — but then apparently thinks better of this and walks away again. It’s as if Malick is illustrating the most rudimentary appearance of mercy.
As the boy wonders what it is his father has turned him into (via monologues that play out against cosmic images worthy of 2001) and his mother wonders why God has taken from her her son, each of these characters ultimately stands for the same idea: That we are all, in a sense, children of a great power that we can never hope to understand. Again and again, Malick returns to a simple, fascinating image of a flame-like light, glowing and throbbing as magnificently as the Burning Bush did in The Ten Commandments. Special effects have come a long way since the 1950s, and it’s now fully within the power of the most advanced visual-effects teams to awe the viewer. Malick adds to the potency by using beautiful arias on the soundtrack.
It’s entirely proper, and refreshingly unusual, for a filmmaker to try to use the majesty of cinema to make us feel the majesty of God. Though The Tree of Life is often vague to the point where different viewers may come away with very different ideas about what it all means, Malick has created a mesmerizing work centered on a deep wellspring of respect for the omnipotent.