Grandiose in its ambition and flawed in its master design, “The Tree of Life” beckons us to ponder all of life’s whimsy and wonder through a collage of interstellar sequences and Texan family vignettes stripped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The size and scope of the film are awe-inspiring, where we question not only the origins of the universe, but the technical wizardry that brought Terrence Malick’s sequence of the galaxy’s genesis to life in the first place. It proves to be less a coherent movie and more a Ph.D dissertation in evolution, memory and baseline human motivators, but even when “The Tree of Life’s” branches out into the realm of existential boredom, there’s beauty to be appreciated.
The movie starts off sometime in the mid 20th century with the serene, free-flowing Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). She’s draped by light and the colors of her quaint home, a woman less of Texas or America but a eternal resident of the sun and the stars. But her reality is shattered when Mrs. O’Brien learns of the tragic passing of her 19-year-old son. At a busy airport hanger, the cold, calculative Mr. O’Brien is also learning of the news, presumably from his wife. He has trouble hearing on the call, as being surrounded by the deafening noises of mankind’s greatest technological achievement to that point, the airplane, has disconnected him from the beauties of his reality.
As we watch Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien mourn, we are familiarized with their juxtaposing personalities and the key theme of the film itself: choosing to walk down the path of nature or the path of grace. Mr. O’Brien represents the brute, aggressive, mechanical nature of the universe. He works a colorless factory job despite his penchant for music, he goads his children into fights and arguments to make them strong for adulthood, and emphasizes the need of independence and self-sufficiency, that the world is a place one needs to make it, not a thing that can be enjoyed.
Mrs. O’Brien contrasts her husband’s stern stewardship with a more graceful, gallivanting approach to life. She openly plays with neighborhood children in the street despite being decades their senior, plays funny pranks on her kids that most adults would condemn, and constantly reinforces the need to love and be loved. The parents present two strikingly discordant philosophies to life that wrestle within their kids as they grow and mature, with Malick telling us less in words and more through depictions of forming planets and dinosaurs being compassionate, that these are the philosophies that have been guiding the universe for the greater part of the history of life.
If each life is a universe, then “The Tree of Life’s” is centered around Jack (Sean Penn/Hunter McCraken), the prime vessel where these philosophies battle and twist with one another like a perennial knot in the Texas tyke’s stomach. When we first meet Jack, he’s a successful but distracted architect, working in a glass building where the sun shines as brightly as it did on his mom, and whose foundations are built from the concrete and steel that his dad would find virtue. Why he’s distracted and ruminating about his life is uncertain, perhaps its a fatal diagnosis or maybe just a midlife crisis. But he is troubled by the death of his brother from years ago, and is plagued by the conundrum of how he became who he is.
We take a journey back through Jack’s memory, where he revisits often important, but also seemingly inconsequential moments from his childhood. A fight with his father here, a hug from his mother there, a quiet phase followed by a violent one, an obsession with a first crush and an inability to understand the purpose of a friend’s random death. Malick effectively captures that sense of the looseness and arbitrariness of memory, how we have little say or control over what we remember, nor do we have the ability to forget the things that we don’t want to keep.
It’s also why we see very little dialogue or extensive private interaction between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, let alone why we don’t even know their first names. Jack is remembering his mother as one singular entity defined by one singular philosophy and his dad as a different one. More likely, they shared more in common with each other, that mom wasn’t always a saint and dad an unforgiving arbiter, that they had their own successes and beefs with each other that the children just weren’t around to see.
These themes of memory and parental influence are constantly present but occasionally lost in “The Tree of Life’s” lack of conventional storytelling structure. Even fully appreciating the depths of Malick’s message and his visual ability to paint it on screen, his themes are deafened through these loose leaf montages, where the extended shots of kids playing, exploring, and being pushed and pulled by their parents become weary.
It’s still a profound cinematic experience with exemplary performances across the board, indisputably one of the most remarkable visual achievements on screen in this past decade. But as the hype and allure of “The Tree of Life” died down since its 2011 release, so have its ability to reach and inspire. We no longer finish the movie and look at the stars, imagining the creation of the cosmos like Malick once did, but quickly figure out the themes and move on to the next movie, “The Tree of Life’s” opening and closing light fading out for good.