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.