The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)

Harmony and disruption are at the exposed heart of Terrence Malick’s visually balletic, thunderously operatic and fitfully unwieldy cinematic event The Tree of Life. This shouldn’t surprise those who have seen Malick’s previous four features, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, which each in their own way deal with the same joyous, tragic thing: a time of perfect happiness and serenity that is necessarily ephemeral and indicative of a dark, deeply fractured era ahead.

In The Tree of Life, discord and grace are expressed less in defined periods, and more in the film’s totemic central characters, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (if the term “central characters” is applicable to a film that depicts with psychedelic reverence the creation of the earth – more on that in a minute). Played absorbingly by a clench-jawed Brad Pitt and placid Jessica Chastain, the O’Briens are a 1950s Texan couple living in a modest home on a sleepy street in Waco. They have three sons, the oldest of whom, Jack, reflects as an adult on his growing up, marked by a tense relationship with his father and the eventual death of his younger brother, R.L. (Adult Jack is played by a brooding Sean Penn, framed as a speck of withered humanity in a sky-reaching, modern-day metropolis.) The substantial second and third movements of the film, with the O’Briens as a young family, can be interpreted as adult Jack’s flashback, but Malick’s brushstroke editing – a glimpse through trees here, a supernaturally moving chair there – also suggests temporal fluidity, that these moments overlap in space-time and memory in crucial ways.

While Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien have opposite conceptual significance – sometimes too heavily so – and young Jack is the resilient if wounded crosspoint of the two, the story of their family’s  frustrations and joys would be empty if not for Malick’s intuitive ability to create profoundly lived-in characters. Elliptical vignettes that pivot on rare glances, fragmentary narration and moments with the fresh sting of having just been found are part of Malick’s auteur signature, and result in interior stories that feel absolutely knowable.

Mr. O’Brien, with the sort of intensity that comes from years of ruminating on personal failings, teaches Jack and R.L. to throw punches, his cheek twitching with mixed affection while his reluctant sons withdraw from him. Mrs. O’Brien, her eyes alive with love, traces of concern and just a hint of fear, playfully chases her sons around the family’s yard, and they excitedly return the favor in a telling sequence when their father has gone away on a trip. Young Jack (played by quiet, excellent newcomer Hunter McCracken), who displays a not unordinary fixation with pain, tricks R.L. into placing his finger over the muzzle of a loaded beebee gun. Later, in a particularly tender, intimate scene, he kisses his brother’s arm better and offers his head for a retaliative clonking. The sequences between Jack and R.L. give The Tree of Life its most poignant soul, perhaps because the moments reveal some of the best child acting in recent memory, perhaps because we already know of R.L.’s eventual fate, and perhaps because we understand the need for closeness between siblings in the often lonely landscape of a troubled upbringing.

The private sagas of the O’Brien family are only part of The Tree of Life, and predominantly the latter, more easily definable part. Before we see Jack’s birth (represented with beautifully eerie underwater footage of a child’s room, pages of a bedside book suspended in aquarial anti-gravity) and ascendency into young adulthood, Malick and special effects artist Douglas Trumbull (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) offer us a staggering visual crash-course on the creation of the universe, part kaleidoscopic reverie and part hallucinogenic Sistine Chapel. For an ecstatic near thirty minutes, seemingly bottomless colors swirl, take form and break apart, simultaneously evoking atomic precision and natural randomness, as a passionate segment of Hector Berlioz’s “Requiem” swells to a grandiose fever pitch. A few inchoate terrains later, dinosaurs emerge. Majestic, sleek and calm, these creatures are CGI quietude in the midst of lush vegetation, and grace the screen briefly and hauntingly before leaving, their time passed forever.

Since its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, The Tree of Life has received numerous and mostly rightful comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, most likely due to the comparably avant garde scope of the two films, and the artistic involvement of Trumbull on both projects. While the films lack any real tonal comparison – the warmth of The Tree of Life is nowhere to be found in 2001, which masters space-age alienation through a HAL 9000 glass eye darkly – the two works are structurally similar, both narratives of humanity in the vast brackets of Before and After. The Tree of Life‘s “After” may be its weakest link – though not for lack of conviction – as it fails to summon any true eye-widening vitality, and retreats into familiar aesthetic territory. Yet the impact of this important film diminishes hardly, and it remains a work of arresting contemplation. It delves into questions that raise fear in both the asking and answering, and, with cutting poetry, follows a son, his brothers, a mother and a father – and possibly another Father – on a journey inside this tremendous universe.