Of all of the filmmakers in the world, Terrence Malick makes it the hardest to form an opinion on his films after one sitting. He doesn’t really make films as much as he makes complex, dense, highly populated visual poems with cameras and actors. While the films always maintain an airy, easygoing charm, each second that the film is unreeling a new idea presented somehow. This isn’t because his films are unfocused; rather the opposite, his films are so highly focused and expect, demand so much of the viewer that to watch it once is almost a crime.
Despite resting on the bed of a relatively simple plot about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, The Tree of Life simply defies description or label in the traditional sense. It is about life, but in the most indescribable way possible, which is something that Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) himself struggles with (and eventually mucks up) greatly throughout the film. The idea of this film is what he is trying to convey to his three sons, and to his wife (the wonderful newcomer, Jessica Chastain), and he cannot do it properly. Yes, he can teach them manners, and even how to fight — but this, this is something else. Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually takes the wrong lessons out of the fragments that his father can give to him. It’s not his fault, no one can put these concepts into words, not even Terrence Malick. Hell, not even the Bible is of any use.
To that end, it is not actually a film about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, that’s just where most of the concepts unfold. The film spans in time from the Big Bang through to the modern day, where the eldest son of the family, a now middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn), has become lost in some sort of emotional netherworld due to a mixture of the delayed turmoil of his brother’s death (at war, one would assume, though it is never confirmed) and the subsequent distance from his family as well as the decaying blight of modern’s man effect on the planet.
Malick finds an overriding beauty in the smallest elements of life (the most beautiful shots in the film are of a simple sunflower patch), but man has scarred this beauty with skyscrapers and greed. This natural beauty is science formed, though, not God formed. Malick goes out of his way to deliver this message with a lengthy and stunning creation sequence, where trial and error, natural experiment on a planetary level and natural selection rule. Life is eventually formed and fostered formed out of the nascent planetary gases, and man comes of this. But man ruins it: he is different. He thinks. He blushes. He destroys. He creates God for order, for peace, and the Devil to blame when, inevitably, neither of these happen.
It could be viewed as possibly the greatest argument for a Godless universe, where man is the annoyance, the “thin film of life” so invisible, yet so ignorantly wrapped up in its own existence, as Carl Sagan put it. One almost gets the sense that nature is waiting us out, and it may be.
But The Tree of Life stands upright as a visual document (the creation sequence itself will be re-released later this year in IMAX), and Malick and his team have created something more stunning than The Thin Red Line. What it stands for poetically will take a little longer to put it into proper perspective, but this is doubtlessly a major work of art, and it must be seen.