The one thing you can't call director Terrence Malick is unambitious. In The Tree of Life, out now in select theaters, he tries to do for 1950s Texas what Stanley Kubrick did for prehistoric man; that is, tie a few ordinary lives to the immensity and wonder of universe and, ultimately, to us.
The Tree of Life makes spectacular leaps in time, from 1950s Texas to contemporary LA, then back billions of years and forward hundreds of millions. Life explodes from nothing into the first few one-cell creatures and then into fish, plants and the first land animals. Malick interweaves the humble story of the O'Brien family with the birth of everything.
The Tree of Life starts at the beginning. Literally. Malick takes us back to the beginning of time and the first few moments of the universe. We see the birth of stars and planets and watch the Earth forming. Then we pull back to the present when the O'Brien family receives the news that one of their sons has died. Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are devastated. The boy's brother (Sean Penn) is hit almost as hard. The death makes him question his place in both the family and the world. Then we flash back to the O'Briens in 1950s suburban Waco, Texas.
We watch the family's life like ghosts. There's no real plot, just the minutiae of life. Dinners. Church. The boys playing in the street. A neighbor's house burns. Mr. O'Brien loses his job and has to take one he hates. Years of the family's life flash by in these quick snapshots. There are no big shocks or family revelations. No serial killers, aliens or robots. Just a family living and struggling with each other in the middle of an incomprehensibly complex and extraordinary universe.
That's what The Tree of Life is really about. Though it's rooted in the 50s, it isn't a Leave it to Beaver story about good American values. It isn't a big budget "We are star stuff" episode of Cosmos. In The Tree of Life there's no real difference between the Big Bang and a father telling his son to use his damn napkin at the dinner table. The movie wants to link the largest and smallest aspects of existence into one long chain of being.
Terrence Malick isn't an ordinary director. He studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford and it shows in his movies, which are often more about philosophical questions than big plots and deep characters. His best known movie, Badlands, is about a young couple (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) on a murder spree through South Dakota. Instead of a Bonnie and Clyde shoot ‘em up, Malick created tension between the bullets, in the quiet moments when the couple were alone and revealed themselves to be just a couple of lost and empty kids living in their own romantic fantasy. B-movie outlaws on the run through the bleak Dakota landscape. Like the O'Briens, they're trying to find their way in the world. While the couple in Badlands prefer to navigate using ruthless violence and romantic banalities, the O'Briens do it through adherence to strict and simple social norms.
The Tree of Life's visuals are stunning. The CG images of the early universe and the emergence of life are better than in many more expensive summer blockbusters. Occasionally, though, the visuals are a little too reminiscent of images in 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly Dave Bowman's long psychedelic descent through space-time near the end.
Even with all of Malick's theories and conceptualizing, The Tree of Life is a deeply emotional movie. By tossing out a linear plot, the movie is able to move with the seemingly ordinary rhythms of life. This might sound odd, but Malick's technique sucks you into the O'Briens' lives as they try to center themselves through Mr. O'Brien's rigid 50s family values and Mrs. O'Brien's boundless love. Unfortunately, they don't seem to help any more than church, which at times is presented as nothing more than a neighborhood formality and at other times like a life raft the family clings to when a crisis hits. The O'Briens, like most of the people around them, are suspended between science and God. Malick wants to reconcile his characters to both ideas because he sees each as trying to express our connectedness to an immense and extraordinary existence.
That's The Tree of Life. Take it or leave it. Malick is an eccentric director, one who you will love unabashedly or hate with every molecule of your being. There's no in between. If you've never seen any of Malick's movies, The Tree of Life might not be the one to start with. Rent Badlands or The New World. Get both if you want a feel for the range of Malick's talent. Love him or hate him, there's no one else like him. And there's no other movie like The Tree of Life, where every birth is a brand new star and every death is an apocalypse.