The history of the universe is distilled into one image, a young boy kneeling at his bedside, praying to God, humbled by life’s unanswerable questions—“Why?” The scene embodies the spirit of Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, which explores the same ontological questions in a maximally ambitious framework. Though unwieldy and difficult to apprehend, the story is familiar and bursts at the seams with archetypal characters and themes.
The film catapults us through the galaxies in the staggeringly gorgeous cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, before zooming into the saga of a 1950s American family whose narrative evokes Our Town and East of Eden. The Tree of Life is more audacious than either.
The story emphasizes the recurring nature of a "loss of innocence," avoiding the myth of a single coming of age event that affects children alone. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a personification of 1950s male values, must also experience the uprooting of his moral fiber when he is denied the success his formidable work ethic should have insured. And his gorgeous, gentle young wife must struggle through the troubling contradictions imbedded in the conventional wisdom of parenthood, and later, the premature death of her son.
The limp condolences Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives—“people pass along, nothing stays the same”—are suddenly revitalized and exaggerated when the film cuts back several million years to an extended scene of a massive erupting volcano, reminiscent of the Planet Earth series.
But the domestic scenes are equally stunning: the confusion and wonder Jack (played excellently by Hunter McCracken) experiences interacting with his newborn brother; the gut-wrenching guilt written on his face after he steals from the neighbor girl’s underwear drawer; the pathos of the moment when he says, "You're my brother!"
Fortunately, The Tree of Life’s treatment of “family values”—as an admirable pursuit with some sinister pitfalls—stems from Malick’s own empathetic impulse instead of contrived moral ambiguity. Even while highlighting man’s infinitesimal condition, he dignifies the comfort found in religion, tradition and platitudes—even the excessive faith we place in the grave importance of our lives.
When an adolescent Jack fantasizes about killing his domineering father, a highly dramatic score is used to evoke the same desperation he feels. Malick frequently capitalizes on these advantages his medium has over writing and theater. Instead of dialogue, Tree of Life communicates most explicitly through its silent vignettes and the actors’ intimations.
The film is shockingly earnest, the product of an overzealous mind exercising his craft with zero inhibitions (one can imagine the decision to include CGI dinosaurs was not unanimous). As a means of entertainment, it approximates the divisiveness of staring at the sun, and produces a similar effect: audiences leave the theater shell shocked—some furious, others smug about not succumbing to the pretentiousness and others stammering inelegant expressions of praise.
All responses are valid. The Tree of Life tackles way too much content, overwhelms to the point of discomfort and still emerges victorious and lucid. In a film that both amplifies the human condition and obliterates it with literal perspective, the effect is perfect.