Terrence Malick's latest film is his most personal—and at times most maddening—to date
The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s magisterial inquiry into faith and redemption, begins in the 1960s with the delivery of a telegram. A boy has died at age 19—how and where (Vietnam?) is never made explicit. What is clear is the grief of his mother (Jessica Chastain), a grief that enfolds us as fully as it does her. Told by a priest that “He’s in God’s hands now,” she replies, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” While she is adrift, her husband (Brad Pitt) is closed and stoic, his chin jutting like a rock amid the sea of sorrow.
From this portrait of loss, Malick brings us forward to contemporary Houston, and the ruminations of the boy’s older brother, Jack (Sean Penn), grown into a manhood empty of joy and full of reproach—in particular for the father he still blames for that long-ago death. These are, remarkably, the first scenes of Malick’s directorial career set in the present day, and his distaste for modernity, for skyscrapers and their sharp, sterile angles, is evident in every meticulously composed frame. Evident, but not without irony: Jack, caged in the chrome-and-glass prison of urban life, is himself an architect.
No, better to rewind to a time before there were steel beams and superstructures and architects—way, way back, to the unfurling of the cosmos, the birth of the Sun, the Earth’s magmic infancy and watery adolescence. We watch a snake-necked plesiosaur as it sprawls beached and dying, its head swaying balefully. Another ancient reptile—a baby parasaurolophus?—is pinned by the talons of a fleet-footed predator, but receives an unlikely reprieve. It is, of course, temporary: Pitching through space is an asteroid with Earth’s name on it, a cosmic hammer destined to smite out nearly a planet’s worth of living things. What, these images ask, is the death of one boy seen through so wide a lens?
It would be wrong to say that the film’s subsequent chapter—by far its longest—attempts to answer that question. Rather, The Tree of Life satisfies itself with meditations on questions too big to be answered. But as Malick’s movie at last settles down in suburban Waco in the 1950s, it does acquire the shape of conventional storytelling. The O’Briens, Mr. (Pitt) and Mrs. (Chastain), bring into the world a son, Jack (played in youth by Hunter McCracken); another, R.L. (Laramie Eppler); and a third, Steve (Tye Sheridan)—though this last is so marginal to the proceedings that he barely registers. The boys’ mother is love incarnate, applying iodine to cuts and playing hide and seek behind the curtains. Their father, stern and growing ever sterner, offers lectures on life’s cruelties. “Your mother’s naïve,” he tells them. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.”
In this central passage of the film, Malick captures the tone and texture of boyhood with uncanny precision: the appetite for risk and transgression—with electricity, with BB guns, with hapless amphibians—the beckoning mystery of dark attics and abandoned houses, the endlessness of days. Jack, the eldest, has the wary, worried eyes of the first-born; R.L., the carefree vagueness of the second child. There are a few moments of seemingly misplaced magic in this section of the film—a chair that moves by itself, a shot of Mom floating, Poppins-like, on the breeze—but for the most part Malick hews to the real, unpacking the family’s dramas in humane, minutely observed detail.
It is impossible not to wonder how much of this story is autobiographical: Malick did, after all, spend some of his boyhood in Waco, and he had two younger brothers, one of whom killed himself while abroad. Yet whether or not the details of The Tree of Life align with the director’s own youth is perhaps irrelevant. Of the five films Malick has made in his long and circumspect career, this is the one he has made most clearly for himself, and we are in some sense bystanders to this communion.
And a communion it is. As in the director’s earlier work, voiceover often crowds out dialogue altogether, as if the gloriously textured cinematography (courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki) is merely the backdrop for a conversation the characters—and through them, Malick himself—are conducting with God. “Where were You?” Jack asks, after witnessing a boy drown at Austin’s Barton Springs. “You let a boy die. You let anything happen.” Later his mother declares, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Such proclamations occasionally prompt the film to teeter between pretension and naivete, Heidegger and Hallmark. But Malick’s gifts are such that it remains evocative and enriching, the sentimentality never quite tipping into bathos.
Until, alas, the final act. As the long, central tale in Waco winds down with an emotional epiphany, Malick jerks us abruptly back to the present day for a metaphysical one. Without going into detail, I will say that it takes place on a beach, that it involves Penn again as the grown Jack, and that it is as soggy as one might fear from that combination of factors. Some viewers may find this conclusion moving; I was instead reminded of the finale of Lost, a comparison that can in no way be construed as a compliment.
Malick has been down this road before. When woven into a narrative, his extraordinary visual eye and reliance on introspective voiceover can bring depth and power to even the slenderest story. But without that tether, his talents can meander, as they did in the errant middle portion of The Thin Red Line. Structurally, The Tree of Life is an inversion of that film: an engrossing central tale bookended by preambles that never quite adhere and a conclusion that, rather than help unify the whole, spins it into another dimension altogether.
The result is a beautiful, messy film: at times lyrical, intimate, and uplifting; at others, vast, inscrutable, and maddening. Whatever our feelings, it’s hard to imagine Malick would have wanted it any other way.