Terence Malick’s latest—arriving a relatively snappy six years after his last picture—is a movie about first things: the meaning of existence, the ways of God, the bewildering sorrows of the human condition. The Tree of Life is spectacularly beautiful in its contemplation of eternal wonders—from the roiling creation of the universe to the gentle settling of a butterfly on the up-reaching hand of a suburban housewife (one of the director’s most remarkable found moments). While the film is centrally concerned with a Texas family in the 1950s, the movie it most strongly recalls is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Running well over two hours, Malick’s exquisitely speculative picture might not seem to offer a lively night out at the multiplex (where few are likely to find it playing anyway); but it’s a hypnotic and—rarest of feats—spiritually enthralling experience.
It begins (appropriately, as we soon realize) with a quotation from the harrowing Book of Job. Then we see a nebulous aurora glowing in the primordial void of space, the beginning of all beginnings. Untold billions of years later, we meet the O'Briens: father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain), and their three young sons, Jack, R.L., and Steve (played strikingly well by first-time actors Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan). Their story is presented out of sequence, as pieces of an existential mosaic. First we see Mrs. O'Brien (she and her spouse have no given names) receiving a distressing telegram. She phones her husband at work with the news it contains, and he, too, is distraught. One of their sons has died. “Lord, why?” the mother wonders, crushed by grief. “Where were you?” A grandmother (Fiona Shaw) tries to console her. “The Lord gives and takes away,” she says. “That’s the way He is.”
The parents themselves might represent the two sides of God’s nature. Mrs. O'Brien is the embodiment of unconditional love and forgiveness. Her husband, however, while loving his family deeply, is also a fierce disciplinarian. (Asked by one of his sons if a friend might come over to visit, the father harshly replies, “Is your family not good enough for you?”) Even more tellingly, there’s a scene in which young Jack, defiant in the face of one of his father’s Old Testament furies, says, “It’s your house. You can kick me out whenever you want.” And then, “You’d like to kill me.”
The waxing and waning of the O'Brien's love and fortunes is depicted at the center of a much broader canvas. We see the wondrous formation of star fields and planets, and the advent of compassion in a carnivorous dinosaur (a marvelous CGI sequence). There are also visions of inscrutable enchantment: a boy swimming up toward the light out of a flooded house, a passing shot of Mrs. O'Brien twirling ecstatically in the air. The movie represents Malick’s first foray into visual effects, and he seems a natural. (He had well-chosen help, luring out of retirement the great effects specialist Douglas Trumbull, who worked on both 2001 and Blade Runner.)
The movie is a quiet triumph for Brad Pitt, who gives a commanding performance as a man torn between deeply felt love and an obscure rage that’s a puzzlement as much to himself as to his family. And Chastain, as his stoic wife, an emblem of maternal concern, is surely on her way to a larger career. (She’ll be back in the fall in Ralph Fiennes’ production of Coriolanus.)
The movie has what seems to me one serious flaw, which is the presence in it of Sean Penn. He plays Jack as a grown man in the present day, a successful architect (I think) now living amid the alienating steel and glass canyons of a big city. Jack is still tormented by the long-ago loss of his brother, and Penn—a fine actor with a boxcar of real-life baggage that will probably always annoy some viewers—has been directed to play the character as a mournful, one-note mope. It’s a very small role, and what dialogue the actor has been given sometimes drifts away in whispers; but Penn’s shrouded performance deadens the last passages of the movie. Jack’s only purpose here is to lead the story to a conclusion—on a beach that might be described as God’s Golden Shore—that, while certainly audacious, flirts with absurdity (and goes on too long).
Malick, the onetime philosophy student (Harvard, Oxford) and teacher (MIT), might counter that only God is without flaws (although some of the characters here might well counter otherwise). In any event, The Tree of Life is a ravishing achievement, a merging of visual mastery and serious philosophical inquiry that it’s hard to imagine any other director undertaking. The questions Malick pursues have no answers, as we know, but still we seek them. Praying by his bedside in one scene, Jack looks upward and asks, “Are you watching me? I want to see what you see.” Would anyone but Malick even attempt a glimpse?
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin’s Press.
Editor's Note: This article originally misstated the name of the family in The Tree of Life. They are named O'Brien.