Terrence Malik's latest feature film, The Tree of Life, is gloriously flawed, so overreaching in its ambition and scope that it can scarcely be expected to leap the bar it set so high. It attempts to portray everything from the Big Bang to the death of our own sun, taking in single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, volcanoes, and embryology along the way. It is also an intimate portrayal of family life in '50s America and how the bereaved deal with loss. It is more than most directors dare tackle in a full career.
Since his debut, the seminal Badlands a lifetime ago in 1973, Malick has only made a handful of films. Renowned for lavishly shot, indisputably gorgeous movies with unusually fractured timelines, his films are either, depending on your natural prejudices, painfully slow or very carefully paced. With mere scraps of conventional narrative, The Tree of Life is a demanding experience for even ardent fans. Narrative elements are interspersed with lengthy sequences of cosmic and natural phenomena. The camera moves longingly over formally analogous images: wave-molded ripples in wet sand play against weathered sedimentary layers in serpentine arroyos; towering clouds of interstellar gas reveal their kinship with drops of paint falling through water.
There are echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Douglas Trumbull handled visual effects for both films) and Charles and Ray Eames' groundbreaking Powers of Ten (1968), which explored everything from the subcellular to the galactic via a family's lakeside picnic. The Eames' film uses the intimate and human purely as a vehicle for the dazzlingly universal. What Malick does, almost miraculously, is put the cosmic at the service of the intimate.
Most of the "action" takes place in the backyard of the O’Brien family home, under the growing shadow of the tree they planted as a sapling. Brad Pitt completely inhabits the role of the tight-buttoned, ruthlessly ambitious father whose tenderness toward his three sons is consistently undermined by his frustrations and fierce desire to instill in them toughness and independence. As with all the actors, much of what is rich in Pitt's performance is communicated not through dialogue, but by dint of virtuosic direction and acting. That the father is Nature -- hungry, selfish, "red in tooth and claw" -- in contrast to Grace, embodied by Jessica Chastain's portrayal of the selfless mother, is superfluously pointed out in narration. Chastain's Mrs. O’Brien is the soul of the family, and her whispered prayers accompanying the cosmic imagery hold the excesses of the movie in check. In present-day scenes Sean Penn is reliably excellent as eldest son Jack O'Brien, grown-up, successful, and still broken.
The real stars, though, are Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, who give flesh to the O'Brien sons' largely idyllic Texas boyhood. McCracken as the young Jack, who is beginning to rebel against the unjust weight of his father’s hands on his shoulders, and Eppler as middle child R.L., whose trust is unfailing and whose forgiveness is unalloyed and unstinting, have a marvelous symbiosis onscreen. It is R.L.'s death at 19 that unravels the family.
It is true that some of the insights expressed in the movie's 138 minutes have been put more succinctly in greeting cards, but the scope of the work is such that some awkwardness is inevitable. I found the film glorious and inspiring. Opening with words from the book of Job, and salted with Mrs. O'Brien's pleas to her dead son, or to an unresponsive God, "Are you even there?" it is, despite all the cosmic swirling, an intensely human movie that explores the essential need for connection, and the impossibility of finding it through anything other than forgiveness.
Richard Vernon is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.