The Tree of Life,” philosopher and filmmaker Terrence Malick’s first film in over half a decade, opens with the news of a young boy’s death that is never mentioned again. Framed by this veil of mortality, the rest of the film contains an emotional intimacy that has not been on display in Malick’s work since his 1998 war film “The Thin Red Line.” That the director is able to successfully pack this much intimacy into a film with galaxies exploding and dinosaurs roaming the earth is impressive. The all-encompassing views of the universe makes the smaller story of a troubled family feel richer.
This unsettled, topsy-turvy quality of jumping between vignettes of the cosmic and its inhabitants takes some getting used to. There are many voice-overs in the beginning, but as in Malick’s other films, they can prove more distracting than useful, particularly when they’re paired with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s dynamic and imaginative camerawork. There is a choice between “the way of nature and the way of grace,” whispers the dead boy’s mother in a monotone voice-over. This line is unclear, since, even by the film’s end, there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between grace and nature. But however off-putting it may be, Malick’s grandiose vision contrasts nicely with the more intimate setting of a family’s household.
After settling down and returning to the narrative of the dead boy’s family, the film sticks with the audience long after they’ve left the theater. Despite the stunning visuals of outer space, this is the part of the film that sticks with viewers. The mourning parents are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. They live in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Waco, Texas, and raise three boys. Their oldest child, Jack (Hunter McCracken) — he is not the one who dies — initially grows up in the equivalent of the Garden of Eden, where the sun is always shining and mothers happily spin their children around in the air.
However, Jack begins to learn that the world is not so idyllic, thanks to his father, who plays God in the household. “If you want to get far in life, you can’t be good,” Mr. O’Brien warns his children, after berating them for not referring to him as “sir” at the dinner table. The troubled and, at times, abusive relationship between father and son grounds the film. Jack, a shy and quiet kid, gradually abandons his earlier state of innocence by engaging in destructive behavior: breaking windows and teaming up with some neighborhood boys to attach a frog — and thus nature — to a rocket. And who can blame the kids, considering their less-than-perfect parents’ unrealistic expectations?
The result of this fall from grace becomes apparent when the film jumps to an older Jack (Sean Penn), now a middle-aged businessman. Wearing a ubiquitous dress suit, Jack works in a sterile skyscraper, and comments during a business meeting that “the world’s gone to the dogs. The world’s greedy.”
As in Malick’s other films, there is an artificiality at play that fans have grown accustomed to. It stems from the combination of blunt voice-overs, paired with actors behaving in a staged and idyllic manner. Malick’s 2005 film “The New World” had a tendency of treating Indians in a simplistic and somewhat paternalist manner. Pocahontas even does cartwheels on the shore of an English pond. Jessica Chastain, as Jack’s mother, defaults to an idealized perfect mother role, but her over-the-top acting is appropriate, considering that “The Tree of Life” is about Jack’s transformation from a wide-eyed child to a disillusioned man.
There is eventually a reconciliation of sorts between Mr. O’Brien and his son in “The Tree of Life.” Older Jack, still donning business attire, wanders around an isolated salt flat, with dozens of other people meandering around him. It is unclear whether he is trapped in some vision of heaven or hell. But Jack soon rediscovers his father and embraces him “The only way to be happy is to love,” Jack’s mother intones in voice-over. The line, however, does not feel cliched. The scene is an unrealistic, completely visual way of depicting mortality, yet it works because of its very simplicity. While humans may not be able to match the overwhelming beauty and destruction of nature, as envisioned by Malick, there is hope yet for redemption. Perhaps Jack and the rest of his family are instead wandering around purgatory, waiting for the chance to return to an earlier state of naivete — together.