The Tree of Life is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. Terrence Malick has created a film with a quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema. Similarly to A Serious Man, The Tree of Life examines the lives of one family to explore the core question from The Book of Job of why is it that good people suffer. How can anybody believe in God in a universe that feels so godless? In the prologue to the film Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother of the family, narrates, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.’ Shortly after receiving the news of the death of her middle child the film switches to the perspective of her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult. It’s the anniversary of his brother’s death and by remembering his childhood he attempts to reconcile his conflict with the way of nature and the way of grace. The memories that then unfold on the screen not only position this conflict within the dynamic between his mother and his father (Brad Pitt), but also within the collective memory of all of creation from the Big Bang onwards.
To a degree Malick picks up where Stanley Kubrick left off with his epic exploration of humanity’s place in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A visual link between both films is established by the distinctive imagery by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull so that the creation of the universe sequence towards the start of The Tree of Life is something of an echo of the Star Gate sequence at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thematically Malick is possibly even bolder than Kubrick by channelling the immense creation themes through the experiences of a single family living in suburbia in 1950s Waco, Texas. More specifically, through Jack’s childhood memories so that like Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the recollections are segmented and combined with small non-naturalistic moments to reflect what impressions remained with Jack into his adult life. Memories of sibling rivalry, emerging sexuality and domestic conflict are mixed in with images such as his mother floating above the ground as she describes her joy of flying in a plane. Malick’s real stroke of genius is conveying the impression of an individual childhood as being as significant – and as filled with wonder, beauty and danger – as the creation of the universe and life on Earth.
The Tree of Life suggests a continual battle between nature, as a sort of Darwinist survival of the fittest, and grace, as a spiritual belief that kindness and love exists beyond the survival mechanism. Jack’s mother is clearly on the side of grace with a religious faith that sees her extending compassion wherever she can. Filled with professional disappointments and resentments, Jack’s father supports the ‘natural’ idea of an indifferent universe. Despite his love for his sons he increasingly becomes emotionally abusive by projecting his frustrations onto his family. The conflict is one Jack as an adult is still struggling with and it is a conflict Malick suggests predates humanity. In an extraordinary scene during the creation of the world sequence, a predatory dinosaur moves in to kill a weaker dinosaur and then reconsiders, to instead respond in a way that hints at a sort of primordial kindness. Does this early moment suggest that there is actually no battle between grace and nature at all since grace always existed within nature?
The possibility of the existence of something greater than the physical world is strongly explored in The Tree of Life. Malick is deliberately ambiguous in this regard, which is appropriate given just how far he delves into unknown terrain. However, we do get a glimpse of something that exists both beyond time and space, but also within humanity’s collective conscious. This may be what Mrs O’Brien interprets as heaven, but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime. It also evokes the belief from many early cultures that there is a place outside of the physical world where all spirits reside waiting to be born again (as expressed, for example, in the Indigenous Australian film Ten Canoes) although this is articulated in The Tree of Life as a place where memories of the living are also present.
However, The Tree of Life is not simply a conceptually or philosophically complex exercise, but a film of stunning beauty that seductively immerses the viewer. The camera is constantly moving, the sound is intricately designed so that the dialogue and voiceovers have a musical quality, and every shot is composed with Malick’s trademark perfection. There is a constant sense of momentum in The Tree of Life and the film even seems to speed by quicker on subsequent viewings. It is a film that demands to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate its complexity and artistry, but even a single screening is enough to make jaded viewers sit up, startled by the sensation of experiencing such cinematic lyricism.
Malick has clearly shot hours upon hours of footage of the interaction between the actors playing the O’Brien family members and then cut down that footage to create an impressionist montage of their lives. The strongly naturalistic performances by the actors ensure that the film does remain grounded amid the overwhelming use of film style. Penn delivers the muted anguish felt by adult Jack in small gestures and glances. Pitt’s performance is possibly his best to date as a fearful man who is also deeply vulnerable. Newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack along with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as his two brothers come across like seasoned professionals. However, this film really belongs to Chastain who is an absolute revelation as the silent, strong and unconditionally loving mother of the family.
Terrence Malick has never made a film anything short of extraordinary, but he has surpassed himself with The Tree of Life and produced a masterpiece that will surely only continue to grow in stature and significance over time.