There can be no doubt that Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is an Art film with a capital A. It tackles the big, transcendental, existential questions, such as the Meaning of Life and the Existence of God. The narrative contains the entire history of the universe, including a "Rite of Spring" style account of the development of life on earth, from amoebas to CGI dinosaurs and beyond. It announces these grand ambitions from the very first frames, which are set to narration explaining the two paths through life, The Way of Nature, and The Way of Grace. Then we are introduced to an aged father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) grieving over the death of one of their three grown sons. One of the surviving brothers is Jack (Sean Penn), an architect in a faraway city. Learning of the death, he faces a crisis of faith, which frames the rest of the story.
These opening scenes are full of long, static shots and sparse dialogue, spoken almost entirely in whispers, mutters, and mumbles. The first twenty minutes of "The Tree of Life" are the most esoteric and difficult to get through, perhaps Malick's way of telling his audience that if they're not willing to commit to a film that wears its serious artistic intentions on its sleeve, perhaps they had better leave the theaters before going any deeper in. However, the softer dialogue and more meditative shots also have the effect of making the audience strain to listen a little harder, and pay more attention to what is happening onscreen. In this way, the viewer's senses are sharpened and ready when Malick decides to unleash the full aural and visual beauty of "The Tree of Life."
Because after all the mordant angst and the extended natural history lesson, the true premise of the film reveals itself – it's a history of Jack's early childhood years, as seen through the intense, subjective viewpoint of his memories. Natural and celestial imagery recurs, in order to maintain the themes set forth in the prologue, but otherwise the film is almost totally concerned with the Jack's development from joyous babyhood to troubled adolescence. We watch Jack, played by Hunter McCracken as a boy, wrestle with questions of morality, mortality, and maturation, guided by the conflicting philosophies of his parents. His mother, portrayed as a winsome Titian-haired Madonna by acting newcomer Jessica Chastain, represents the Way of Grace, of goodness and selflessness. The harsher, violent Way of Nature is Jack's father, an authoritarian, sometimes bullying figure who Jack and his two brothers clash with to a greater and greater degree as they grow older. You many never look at Brad Pitt in quite the same way after this one.
There is no shortage of cinema pleasures to be found in "The Tree of Life," but it takes a lot of work and a lot of patience to discover them. Malick's brilliance as a filmmaker is undeniable, but his execution doesn't quite match his ambition in the end. He fills the screen with all manner of stunning images, but I have to wonder at the way he chooses to present some of them. The more surreal bookend sequences felt unnecessary. Many of the nature shots are used oddly, or in such obvious ways as to border on cliché. While our first view of an elasmosaurus is stunning, the subsequent dinosaur appearances become a little silly. There is also a later scene during the denouement with Chastain and Joanna Going, playing Jack's unnamed girlfriend/wife, which looks like nothing so much as an interpretive dance sequence. This is really taking the whole lyricism approach too far.
Fortunately these missteps are few. The best segments are the ones that follow Jack discovering and exploring the world during his childhood, in a fiercely personal, nostalgic evocation of 1950s America. Malick captures the inner world and emotional reality of Jack by giving us a fragmentary, almost stream-of-consciousness-style narrative. As a baby, the camera is close to the ground, and the shots are shorter, more intimate and enclosed. As a boy, at play in house full of boys, the camerawork becomes chaotic and the pace sometimes quickens to a frenzy. Though I'm not about to start trying to decode the film for deeper meaning, the thought occurred to me that perhaps the POV of the camera was supposed to represent God, sometimes looking through Jack's eyes, sometimes a watchful presence hovering nearby.
The intensity of the images is bolstered by the soundtrack, consisting mostly of classical music pieces, including several themes courtesy of Alexandre Despalt, but also an impressive sound design. It is yet another way for Malick to remind of us of the presence of the natural and the divine. Chirping crickets and running water are the most prominent motifs, and the tone becomes ominous whenever they fall silent. The whispered dialogue is meant to convey the characters' inner, private thoughts, including several entreaties to God, though the name of the deity is only invoked directly once or twice. One of these is a brief snippet of memory where Jack's mother points up toward a lovely, cloud-strewn sky and tells her baby "That's where God lives," as the orchestral music swells. And it's such a lovely moment that you'd never question that Jack would remember it decades later.
The performances also deserve praise, though they tend to be overshadowed by the editing and cinematography. Pitt and Chastain are impressive, but the film really belongs to the younger actors - Hunter McCracken as the troubled young Jack, and Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan who play his younger brothers. There's not a single moment among the three of them that feels affected or emotionally false, and the greater part of the film follows them continuously. McCracken is particularly strong, as Jack's confusing darker impulses begin to emerge and his animosity toward his father grows.
In the end, so much of the effectiveness of "Tree of Life" comes from the unusually ambitious scope of Malick's vision. There are few filmmakers who would have the daring to conceive of such a difficult, demanding film, and fewer still who have the means and the skill to get it made. Malick is not on the level of Stanley Kubrick, though it is tempting to compare the two because of the similar imagery of "Tree of Life" and Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." However, I get the sense that Malick has aspirations beyond Kubrick, and the best moments of "Tree of Life" suggest that Malick has the capacity to surpass him. After five films, Malick has finally won me over, and "The Tree of Life," though very imperfect, is easily his greatest cinematic achievement so far.