To make a movie as daring and ambitious as The Tree of Life, one needs to forget all about critical reaction, aspersions or box office results. Movies are group art, requiring the collaboration of hundreds of people, but The Tree of Life feels as if it were made by one man working in his studio, like a painter working on a canvas. Director Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, Badlands, The Thin Red Line, The New World) is the J.D. Salinger of filmmaking — he never gives interviews, and we know only a little about his upbringing and education (he was a Rhodes scholar) — but The Tree of Life is probably as personal and self revealing a movie as he’s ever going to make. It is also more ambitious than any of his previous films: Even if you are familiar with his love for whispered voice-over narration or his tendency to ignore plot, the movie is still a challenge.
It is also a transporting, stunningly beautiful film (the cinematographer was Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot using only natural light, to amazing effect). The setting is Waco, Texas, home in the 1950s to an ordinary family living the proverbial American dream: Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a stern disciplinarian, engineer and devout churchgoer; his wife (Jessica Chastain), who devotes her life to pleasing her husband and raising their kids, the eldest Jack (Hunter McCracken), the middle child R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and young, doomed Steve (Tye Sheridan).
“The way of nature or the way of grace — you have to choose which one you will follow,” the movie tells us at the start. To the O’Brien boys, their father represents nature — survival of the fittest, fighting, violence — and their mother grace — unconditional love, tenderness and a connection with the natural world. In a tricky, subtle performance, Pitt doesn’t turn his character into the typical monstrous father: He loves his sons as much as his wife loves them, but he has different ideas about how best to raise them, and as they grow older, his manner toughens, like that of a drill sergeant for children. The Tree of Life unfolds primarily through the eyes of Jack (also glimpsed as a sour adult, played by Sean Penn in a few brief scenes, always surrounded by metal and steel), who gradually comes to resent— and resemble — his father for his sometimes cruel ways. Like his brothers, Jack adores his mother: She’s a saint-like figure who, at one startling point, even levitates.
There is no traditional plot in The Tree of Life, which is why so many people have deemed it boring even though it won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie plays out as a series of memories, so exact and evocative that watching it becomes an immersive experience (the editing, credited to five people, is intentionally disorienting). Never before has Malick been able to burrow so deeply into your head: The childhood played out on screen is so vivid, it reminds you of your own, regardless of the circumstances – not what it felt like to be a kid, but how you grasped the world around you and made sense of it.
But instead of keeping the movie within the limits of a domestic drama, Malick pushes it into something far more grand and risky. Twenty minutes in, we cut away from Waco and into outer space, where we witness the Big Bang and the eventual creation of life on Earth — a puny little amoeba that eventually begets dinosaurs. Throughout the film, the characters talk to God (“What are we to you?”), and the end, in perhaps its most controversial sequence, puts a literal face on Malick’s belief in an afterlife. The Tree of Life is the story of a family, but it is also a bold, uninhibited exploration of man’s place in the universe, of our role as dust specks in an impossibly large universe. In this flawed yet masterful, unforgettable movie, Malick argues that even the tiniest mote can have value. He sees miracles everywhere. You just have to make an effort to see them, too.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw.
Writer-director: Terrence Malick.
Producers: Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes, occasional moments of baffling incomprehensibility. Opens Friday June 17 In Miami-Dade only: Regal South Beach. Opens wider on June 24.