It is customary for publicists to ask critics what they think of a movie as they leave an early screening. Most of the time, I’m more than happy to give my opinion. “It was really good” or “It was ok” are my customary responses. Unsurprisingly, I had an entirely different reaction after Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I said, “I don’t know.” Weeks have passed since I saw Malick’s latest and I’m still grappling with what it means. Words like “excellent” and “good” cannot even scrape such an achievement because its ambition is beyond the scope of traditional film.
Malick offers a brief history of two universes, each commenting on the other. The first belongs to all of us. The Big Bang creates something from nothing, and important Earthly events soon follow. Oceans form, as do continents and life. Arresting depictions of early history are a backdrop for another, much smaller universe.
Jack (Hunter McCracken) lives in Waco with his Father (Brad Pitt) and Mother (Jessica Chastain). Father is a stern engineer whose tough love yields mixed results; Mother is an angelic protector who strives to preserve innocence and joy. As Father terrorizes his children, Mother creates an imperfect womb of comfort, which Jack later resents. When parents are gone, Jack is lord and protector of his smaller brother. They develop a tenuous bond, one based on shared experience and fear. As a middle-aged man, Jack (now played by Sean Penn) cannot recover from his youthful wounds. As he struggles to find his place, wistful reflection on his past offers no answers.
Malick does an uncanny job of recreating a child’s process of discovery. When Jack is a toddler, the camera reflects his inability to place his surroundings in a context. Everyday objects – especially trees and other flora – bisect the frame to create stunning distortions. McCracken plays Jack for a plurality of the film’s running time, and we often see him from behind in a medium shot, following his every move like an empathetic conscience. Many scenes depict Jack at play (a game of kick the can recalls Badlands); later scenes with his brother have an aching intimacy. The parents, however, are the pillars of Jack’s world. At one point Mother literally floats, and she’s backlit by sunlight most often; her fleeting smile is the antithesis of his father’s hardened jaw.
The Tree of Life unfolds with a string of eye-catching associations. There is no traditional narrative, nor is there an attempt to build drama from scene to scene. Instead, Malick and his editing team slowly instill a sense of careful piety into the viewer. The plot barely beyond our grasp, childhood moments and celestial time-lapses are meant to get audiences in a state where they ask elemental questions of themselves. As for what the questions are, I cannot say and neither, I think, can Malick. Words barely articulate the cumulative effect of his endlessly creative juxtaposition of sight and sound. The movie is not merely hypnotic; its softly elegiac inquiry is more like prayer.
Sound is as important as imagery, so the intertwining of music and voiceover are one source of the film’s great power. Choral arrangements and classical compositions establish the pious tone, and when the music pairs with gorgeous astronomy, Malick delicately presents the infinite. The actors also handle the narration with care. Their voices barely above a whisper, it is unclear whether they speak to themselves or their creator, yet it does not matter. Penn in particular sounds like anguish fills him, and his blunt thoughts start to resemble the viewers’. Relief arrives in the film’s final moments, set in an austere desert, where Jack finds few answers but an unmistakable reason to cease his despair.
It is tempting to guess how The Tree of Life resembles Terrence Malick’s personal life. Both he and Jack grew up in Waco, and had engineer fathers. I doubt the movie is a facsimile recreation of his childhood, yet the halting tenderness of some scenes suggests a deep connection to the material. Jack and his family are carefully realized and the performances and hauntingly understated, so the film transcends its time and place to become a tribute to all families and their spiritual struggles. Here is a film that reaches beyond my capacity for appreciation and engages my senses of humility and awe. Strange as it may sound, I feel the movie knows more about me than I do about it.