Over three decades and just five features, director Terrence Malick has crafted grand philosophical symphonies over such epochal events as the Great Depression (Days Of Heaven), World War II (The Thin Red Line), and America’s founding (The New World), but The Tree Of Life feels like the film he’s been building toward his entire career. Or maybe it’s just the film he’s been making all along. Without anchoring himself to a larger historical event, Malick has made a startlingly direct expression of man’s relationship to the natural world and to other forces beyond human comprehension. In terms of scale, The Tree Of Life recalls the mammoth ambition of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s also more intimate and personal than Malick’s previous films, rooted in vivid memories of growing up in ’50s Texas.
The Tree Of Life starts with a question common to anyone who’s lost somebody close to them: Why did that have to happen? It then tackles that question by reaching back to the creation itself, and pondering the mysteries of God and the universe, from The Big Bang to the dinosaurs to the precious wisp of a human life. Working with the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Children Of Men), Malick spends much of the brilliant first hour assembling exalted images of man and nature with an intuitive, poetic style that recalls Wong Kar-wai. He then settles into a fine evocation of one family’s life in ’50s Waco, where a scolding, autocratic father (Brad Pitt) and a gently permissive mother (Jessica Chastain) raise three impressionable sons.
The simplicity of The Tree Of Life will be mistaken for naïveté. Malick works in archetypes, not multi-dimensional characters: The parents, for example, are established as diametrical opposites—nature vs. “grace,” active vs. passive, peaceful vs. tempestuous—and the brothers are affected by both ends of the spectrum. Malick extrapolates the competing forces within this family into the tensions of the universe itself, and how people choose to negotiate their lives. Though Malick can’t top the glorious abstraction of that first hour—the Waco material, though full of wonders, has a possibly unavoidable shapelessness—The Tree Of Life has a vision that makes most movies look like crude stick drawings. On balance, the question of why someone has to die is made to seem absurdly narrow, because a single life seems so insignificant in the vastness of time and space. Yet The Tree Of Life isn’t despairing about it in the least; it’s a genuine attempt to grasp the transcendent, and the rare religious film that deserves to be called spiritual.