The film begins with a sort of orange light shining in the darkness, the symbolism of which isn’t immediately obvious. A woman (Jessica Chastain) recalls a lesson taught to her by nuns: that we must choose between the way of grace and the way of nature. Then the story commences in bits and pieces. We see this same woman get news that causes her great pain, and a man (Brad Pitt) receive the same news. It soon becomes clear that one of the couple’s sons has died. Meanwhile, a different son named Jack (Sean Penn) is shown aimlessly living his life in a large city.
After these initial scenes, The Tree of Life then seamlessly shifts into a rather stunning sequence depicting the formation of life on Earth. It’s a wonder to behold: an extended bit of visual artistry that is unlike anything I’ve seen. Terrence Malick is known for his brilliance in that department, but not even the beauty of something like his Days of Heaven can top what he’s achieved here. Few things can. But once again the film also requires patience, because for all its beauty the meaning of this display isn’t apparent until much later.
I think I may have suggested that this movie doesn’t really have a true narrative. That’s actually not the case. These astonishing early sequences soon give way to the story of a family in Texas. This is the same, more fragmented group we glimpsed at the beginning, only seen many years earlier. Life happens. The couple’s first son (Jack) is born, to be followed by two more. They raise their children in two very different ways, each related to how the specific parent views the world.
The mother is a free spirit who believes that life here on Earth is a wonder, and is frequently shown running and laughing with the children. The comparison I believe many have made is that she represents the way of grace mentioned early in the film, while Brad Pitt’s character is the way of nature. He’s not a bad man and truly loves his children, but the trials of his life have left him somewhat jaded. This makes him a stricter (at times borderline abusive) parent who demands that the kids kiss him goodnight and constantly criticizes everything they do in an effort to make them better than he is.
And this comparison does have merit as far as contrasting the belief systems of the two adults. It’s also worth noting that Malick’s film is not objective about which way is better. The mother is almost always portrayed smiling and with light shining on her face, while the father is both sinister and more than a bit sad. The Tree of Life strongly implies that he wasn’t always this way, but has instead lost touch with that which makes life worth living: grace. Perhaps his unfulfilled desire to be a musician has something to do with this, as one of the rare times we glimpse happiness in him is when he’s making music.
But to explain this extraordinary motion picture as such also does it a serious disservice. Terrence Malick has made a film that tries to capture just about everything about human existence: how it came to be, where it’s heading, how those of us living in the moment ponder the mysteries of it, how a child comes to view the world, what it all means, and so on. And the degree to which it succeeds in this attempt (though obviously not one hundred percent) is astonishing. Everything that we see early on makes sense in the grand scheme of things. The life formation sequences, for instance, tie into the theme of appreciating the glory that is our being.
Up to this point I have not really mentioned the performances, which are tremendous. The reason for that is that this film doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue, forcing Chastain, Pitt, Hunter McCracken (who plays young Jack), and others to convey this emotional story mostly through facial expressions. These aren’t the types of roles that win Oscars, but if I had my way several of the actors here would definitely be in the running. Malick’s stunning visual style is obviously the main attraction of The Tree of Life, but the greatness of this film depends on far more than that.
Everything in the film works. It's a triumph on every level. I believe it will go down as not just one of the best movies of this decade, but one of the most brilliant artistic endeavors of all time. Am I praising it too much? Maybe. But it's now been over a week since I saw this film, and it's still hard for me to think about anything else. I replay certain images in my mind daily, remembering my pure awe upon first witnessing them. People like to call movies magical, but The Tree of Life is one of the first times where that expression actually applies. This is film at its finest right here.