Nonsectarian, revelatory, and boundlessly poetic, The Tree of Life is an an experiment in insularity, an esoteric religious odyssey, unique, cryptic, and overflowing with wonder. It’s a manic hybrid folly on the level of W.B. Yeats, part puzzle, part coming-of-age tale, part wildlife documentary. The result is unadulterated cinema from writer-director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), destined for the delectation of adventurous arthouse-goers and partisans.
Malick’s long-awaited latest project is half childhood memoir, half metaphysical fantasy, encompassing the beginning of life itself. It begins with a Bible quote and ends with a meeting of souls, with the structure of a series of young memories, gathering in fragments, whispers, glances, fancies, associations. It’s so exact and evocative that much of it could operate as a silent film. Its fetching images are like glowing shards of glass, which together form a grandiose mirror that reflects Malick’s impassioned philosophical outlook. It’s unquestionably his most personal work, an elucidation of how he came to be, why he creates, and where he’s going.
Most of it takes place in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. The stony Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading, Inglourious Basterds) and the benevolent Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter, Coriolanus) are dad and mom to three boys, one of whom is Jack (Sean Penn, once he grows up). Early on, The Tree of Life is very Freudian: Jack wants to kill this Father to be with this Mother. It borders on an almost Oedipal obsession.
Concurrently, it’s a visually dazzling and polarizing examination of hidden beauty and brazen darkness, an inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions. The vanished life of a forgotten family, six decades ago in a small town, is connected to the story of the universe, which we hardly think about but is around us and within us all the time. With sincerity and sophistication, The Tree of Life ponders the thorniest questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them.
At some points, it resembles a poem or a symphony; at others, it approximates a fervent prayer. Stunningly edited and faultlessly shot, its presentation of nature is so pristine, so ethereal that it virtually presumes divine intervention. Through light, movement, and spirit, it casts a dizzying spell and somehow manages to enunciate the ineffable. It consists of some of the most ecstatic filmmaking imaginable. The tone is mesmeric, awe-inspiring, transcendent.
In his Palme d’Or winner, Malick vividly evokes the defining presence and absence of a mother; he precisely renders the way that the world appears to a child; he intuitively looks at how parents turn children into the people they grow up to be. His vision of the afterlife is a dreamy beach, enhanced by a playlist of fine classical music, and promising the peace that surpasses all understanding. None has ever reached as vigorously or as high toward the face of God.
Laboured, idiosyncratic, and perplexing, The Tree of Life is a soberly audacious film that will make viewers swoon or snore. For some, it’s a gargantuan work of pretension and clever self-absorption masquerading as mystical exploration. Its eschatological quandaries can tend to overwhelm the story, and it’s bound to mystify, amaze, and exasperate in equal measure. Notwithstanding its enormous advantages, it’s easy to admire and hard to embrace.
Like a church service via a planetarium visit, it delivers truths that don’t go down easy. It functions as a celestial pronouncement, cosmic in scope and oracular in tone, a cinematic sermon on the mount that shows its creator in exquisite form. Aggressively impressionistic and unapologetically spiritual, The Tree of Life is an extraordinary vision of first contact between a soul and the universe. It’s an eruption of a movie, a defiantly opaque, free-form meditation on nature and nurture across millennia with a tinge of biblical grace.
Daring in concept and daffy in execution, The Tree of Life offers a heartfelt answer to the question of where we belong: on this planet, with each other, bound by love. We are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, fascinated by the mysterious relationships that define our lives, connected at every point to something larger that we can’t understand.
Trying to get at that complexity in a 2011 movie-star vehicle that is a family autobiography and an indecipherable allegory, that’s nuts. But it’s a probable classic of contemplative cinema – a stone’s throw away from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – alive with passion for God and the world, for everything we reach for and cannot grasp, for all that is lost and found and still to come.