By the end of my hushed and reverent screening of The Tree of Life I was thinking a lot of things, about mortality and savagery and grace and the ephemeral but eternal qualities of a single blade of grass. I had been Malicked, in other words, flooded with images and emotions and philosophies from my own life and from the director's, captivated by an earnest and enormous movie that will take many, many more viewings to untangle. The Tree of Life doesn't fit well with the usual critic's mode of analysis-- what is this director showing me? What is this scene telling me about what's come before? Where is the story going next? Eschewing all but the most slight narrative thread, with characters so schematic they're more symbols than people, The Tree of Life demands you bring your own emotional associations to it, using universal images of nature and family and childhood to evoke extremely personal reactions from each viewer. But it also works best in moments when it is most specific about its characters and its purpose; while Malick's unfocused lyrical energy is one of the movie's greatest strengths, it may also prevent The Tree of Life from becoming something truly grand and transformative.
Whether depicting the birth of the planet or the middle child in a Texas family, The Tree of Life is at its best in the details. The non-linear narrative briefly introduces us to the parents of this family (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) as they mourn the death of their teenage son before looping back to, quite literally, the beginning of the universe. For a long stretch of the film we see no humans at all, privy to the movement of molecules, the evolution of slippery fish and even the dinosaurs that paved the way for us on this planet; the cinematography, which Malick has apparently been working on for decades, is breathtaking, and paired with the rapturous classical music this segment is phenomenal, even as a nagging voice in the back of a viewer's mind may say, "Yes, but what does this have to do with the family we just met?"
The answer is nothing and everything, of course; the O'Brien parents and their three young sons are a specific family, Southern-tinged and living in the idyllic 1950s, but they are also Malick's equivalent of Adam and Eve, symbols for the whole of humanity and its struggles. After meeting the eldest, Jack, as an adult played by Sean Penn and wandering aimlessly in a glassy modern skyscraper, we spend the uninterrupted middle section of the film with the O'Briens in the 50s, seeing scattered moments large and small in what turns out to be the last summer the family will spend in their tiny suburban home. Jack's coming-of-age, his youthful tendency toward violence and sexual awakening, makes up the slim thread uniting these scenes, which depict Chastain as a luminous and near-silent angel of grace, and Pitt as the brooding and desperately insecure father-- or is that God?-- who motivates almost all of Jack's rebellion. The visual metaphors come fast and beautiful, everything from trees to dogs to sprinklers standing in for something sublime, but again, the details clinch the emotional power: the fear on one boy's face when a neighbor drowns at the swimming hole, or the nutritious, bland food on their plates at a dinner that the father ruins with his rage.
Filmed gloriously by Emmanuel Lubezki, this middle section is childhood as we all want to remember it, both specific and gauzy with nostalgia. It gives way to a far more fragmented third act, in which we're reunited with an adult Jack who we barely know at all, and who has all the emotional catharsis that wouldn't have been possible with the young boy Jack, but would have been far more meaningful. The many ideas and feelings of Tree of Life all collide in a series of increasingly symbolic endings, some of which incorporate a visual language not present anywhere else in the film-- a mask floating in water, for instance-- and others coming closer to the resolution the film needs. Even though it ends with the literal end of the universe Tree of Life never quite feels finished, and surely the meticulous Malick doesn't think it is either. But even without being an unfettered success, even venturing in several directions that don't quite pay off, Tree of Life is a gobsmacking experience that earns its grandness.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich