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.