In some ways, The Tree of Life is an astonishingly literal movie. It opens with the passage from the Book of Job where God answers Job’s lamentations by asking, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (In other words: “I made your world and everything in it, dude, so quit whining.”)
Next, writer-director Terrence Malick shows us a modern-day Job, a devout, life-loving woman (Jessica Chastain) whose faith is sorely tested by a family tragedy. “Why?” she whispers to God in voiceover. Then we’re in present day, where the woman’s grown son (Sean Penn) contemplates another loss. “Why?” he asks in turn.
And then Malick does what even the Old Testament God (not having visual effects at his disposal) couldn’t do: He shows us the foundation of the earth, from the black void all the way through the dinosaurs. If you’re going to answer the question, “Why are we born to suffer and die?” you need to start at the beginning, right?
Actually, this wordless sequence doesn’t answer any questions, but it’s stunningly beautiful and will quickly divide moviegoers into those who groove on Malick’s style and those who don’t. (I saw a few people walk out during the Creation.) When the dinos are gone, The Tree of Life returns to the human timeline and evolves into a more traditional drama about one Texas family in the 1950s. But, as we watch the Penn character (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken) come of age and defy his father (Brad Pitt), we can’t forget all this is happening on a universal stage.
In the Texas sequences, Malick captures the flow of time with an impressionistic style that gives equal weight to life-changing incidents, fleeting moments and dreams. Many artworks have been based on childhood memories, but only a few have so convincingly recreated those vivid, fragmentary experiences that they remind us of our own earlier ways of seeing. Wordsworth did it in The Prelude, Jonathan Franzen did it in The Corrections and Malick does it here. Like a child’s eyes, his camera is always seeking light — the sky between the treetops, the sunset glow over a roof where a kid’s ball disappears, even the pearly gleam of skyscrapers. All these shots hark back to the film’s opening, where Chastain’s character learned that taking the “way of grace” through life means never ignoring traces of divine glory in the world.
None of this will surprise moviegoers who remember how Malick made the motion of wheat fields in Days of Heaven (1978) into an elegiac, almost prayerful experience, or how he found beauty on the battlefields of Guadalcanal. With the help of talented cinematographers (for The Tree of Life, Emmanuel Lubezki) and classical music, the director elevates landscape on film from a cliché to a revelation. But when he couples his flow of magnificent images with story and dialogue, things can go awry.
In his last two movies, The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), Malick used multiple, layered voiceover narrations to tell epic tales of World War II and North American colonization. The result was operatic and sometimes (like opera) borderline ludicrous. The Thin Red Line began with Jim Caviezel asking God how the Pacific islands’ natural glory squared with death, and Malick’s Pocahontas and John Smith were also prone to such philosophizing, so The Tree of Life plays like the capstone of an obsessive trilogy.
But its subject matter is more personal, more specific (except for the Creation) and more gripping. Malick has wisely cut back on the frequency of interior monologues. His characters here have stronger on-screen presences than usual, especially Pitt as the conflicted father, who takes out a lifetime’s worth of disappointment on his sons, and McCracken as the eldest, who hates him enough to imitate him.
The Tree of Life isn’t “deep.” It offers no answers to the question “Why?” that haven’t been offered by poets and preachers for centuries. As a riff on the Book of Job, it’s nowhere near as clever as the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. Malick answers his own life-and-death questions not with ideas but with images. But, by the end of the film, those wordless witnessings may feel like the best and perhaps the only true answers we can have.