Writing about a Terrence Malick film—like the majestic, instantly argument-provoking The Tree of Life—somehow can’t help turning into writing about the way people generally react to a Terrence Malick film. There are those who find his meditative dramas with their dreamy voice-overs—including, most recently, The Thin Red Line and The New World—a kind of cinematic religious experience. And there are those—among whom I had counted myself—whose eyes rolled like Vegas dice whenever Malick’s characters let loose with their, “Dude, nature is, like, so profound,” philosophizing.
When word out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival—where The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or—indicated that Malick had included a sequence literally portraying the birth of the universe, it didn’t seem as though there were reason to expect a bridge between those two perspectives. There would be the rapturous predisposed-to-loving-it exclamations and the shrugs from those who would be accused by the true believers of just not “getting it.”
So it’s hard to describe how startling it was that The Tree of Life hit me somewhere primal, somewhere deep and resonant. As a piece of cinematic artistry, it’s undeniably singular, a dizzying and ambitious vision. But on a much more fundamental level, it’s also about a certain connection we make between the human and the divine—and the challenge we have of separating the two.
The opening scenes set the foundation for the family at the story’s center. A father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) learn that one of their three sons has died. In the immediate aftermath, we see them grieve and struggle; years later, we see one of their other sons, Jack (Sean Penn), still wrestling with his past as an adult. How do we make sense of events that shake our understanding of the way things are supposed to be?
It’s here, at the 22-minute mark, that Malick begins his cosmic-scale attempt at an answer in a way that’s certain either to enthrall or infuriate. Stars are born; liquid earth cools; primitive life forms; dinosaurs fight for life. It’s a truly WTF-level risk Malick is taking, but he also segues smoothly into the flashes of images that make up our memories of early childhood—a frightening place in your house, the security of a mother’s arms, the confusing glimpses of another person in pain. The Tree of Life finds a continuum in the miracle of existence, from the Big Bang right down to a single individual human life.
But more significantly, it’s an attempt to articulate a crucial moment of adult understanding. While the relationship between young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his father is at the center of the narrative, it’s a more complicated concept than that. The Tree of Life explores how a child’s idea of God—maybe especially within this story’s setting in 1950s Middle America—is connected to his perception of his father, and how jarring it is to see that father as a fallible mortal for the first time. Pitt delivers a strong performance in a role that shifts between archetypal and unique in his disappointments, and it’s crucial that we’re able to see him in both contexts. Malick captures Jack’s rebellious acts—everything from breaking windows to pondering a moment when he could literally cause his father’s death—as something akin to a crisis of faith, an attempt to find the moral center to a universe where Dad is no longer God.
It’s easy to understand how Malick’s approach to those ideas—with glowing images, crescendos of symphonic music and, yes, meditative voice-overs—can seem grandiose and off-putting. But The Tree of Life never fails to keep powerful human emotions at its center, from the simple tenderness between brothers to a father wondering how to be both loved and respected. If the film’s climax feels as though it’s reaching for profundity, it’s because Malick is finding a concrete visual metaphor for a man trying to accept grace on new terms—making peace with both God and his own father by seeing them individually. You may resist because of your own philosophy; you may resist because of the way Malick articulates his. But for others, The Tree of Life may be nothing less than soul-stirring.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain