“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” the poet Robert Browning wrote, “or what’s a heaven for?” When it comes to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, that adage applies doubly to the film’s thematic concerns (the search for meaning and human values within the illimitable indifference, if not outright hostility, of the natural world), as well as to its structural properties, shuttling across the warp and woof of universal history from its inception to what may well be the end of time in a distinctly nonlinear (one could almost say non-narrative) fashion. Kicking against the constraints of mainstream cinema, each frame seems to aspire toward transcendence, rife with fulsome images and saturated with a significance above and beyond its admittedly ravishing aesthetic value, whether it’s the naturalism of the O’Brien children at play, borderline surreal flourishes like a gloss on Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin or a boy swimming through submerged house, or else recurring images of ascent (elevators, ladders, the overspreading arboreal presence of the film’s title) that resonate as leitmotifs throughout. The Tree of Life grapples with the cosmic in a manner similar to an acknowledged predecessor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, approaching the exalted realm so many directors aspire to (and so few seem equipped to envision), “pure cinema.” To suggest that Malick could not fully assimilate his far-flung ambitions, that in fact he grossly overreached his grasp, seems somehow entirely beside the point. Which certainly didn’t prevent audience members who’d come expecting a more traditional “Brad Pitt film” from fleeing the theater in disbelief.
Where Malick’s earlier film The Thin Red Line embedded its “war in the heart of nature” thesis in the specifics of the Battle of Guadalcanal, The Tree of Life posits the human psyche of Jack O’Brien (played as an adult by Sean Penn) as its true combat zone, where conflicting viewpoints, what the film in a distant echo of Kierkegaard refers to as “ways through life,” seek reconciliation. One of the narrative’s twin focal points amounts to a more or less straightforward coming-of-age story lodged in the midst of all the cosmic conjecture, wherein Jack’s parents supply the life-philosophical prototypes: Mr. O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) creed of “fierce will” embodies nature’s struggle for brute supremacy, what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all,” while Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) offers a vision of easeful grace, crystallized in the sublime moment when she hovers in the air, turning effortless summersaults. Authoritarian discipline vies with a playful, almost childlike forbearance. As young Jack (Hunter McCracken) muses, “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
Mr. O’Brien eventually departs the scene on a business trip. Jack and his younger brothers celebrate, ecstatically running around the house, slamming the screen door and playing pranks on their mother, but before long the mood sours and darkens. A group of neighborhood boys, including the O’Brien brothers, commits an escalating series of destructive acts, edging ever closer to out-and-out criminality, which has been one of Malick’s abiding interests, particularly in his ’70s films Badlands and Days of Heaven. Bringing matters to a head, Jack breaks into a neighbor’s house, stealing one of the woman’s slips. Prompted by an overwhelming sense of guilt, the feeling of having been detected, whether by gaze divine or mortal, he makes every effort to dispose of the evidence.
The other thread running through The Tree of Life comprises a series of appeals to whatever force guides and shapes events, triggered by the death of the middle O’Brien brother, announced near the beginning of the film. The everlasting problem of rectifying the existence of evil with notions of divine justice, otherwise known as “why bad things happen to good people,” what philosophers and theologians dub theodicy, is coeval with human speculation. The quotation that opens the film (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”), drawn from the Book of Job, provides one answer—in effect saying, with Shakespeare’s Iago, “Demand me nothing.” It may be that the not-so-brief history of time sequence, chronicling the birth of the universe, the emergence of life on our planet, on down to the extinction of the dinosaurs, serves as that quote’s visual correlative, encouraging a sense of cosmic insignificance. In and of itself, this would be pessimistic stuff. But Malick shifts the brunt of the film’s emphasis in its elliptical coda, moving away from an absolute end-times, the heat death of the universe, toward a personal, psychological fantasia that provides Jack with a measure of acceptance and resolution.
The 1080p Blu-ray transfer of The Tree of Life should elicit choruses of hallelujahs. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, with its fluid, fluent use of Steadicam and availing itself of natural light as often as possible, looks transcendent. The DTS-HS Master Audio 7.1, which an opening disclaimer suggests you crank up, carries the ambient sounds of the natural world, the many preexisting classical pieces incorporated into the soundtrack, and Alexandre Desplat’s magisterial score on a tide of dynamic, full-throated splendor.
Other than an HD trailer, the sole special feature is a half hour documentary that explores the genesis, location scouting, casting, special effects, production design, and significance of the film. Talking heads interviewed include fellow directors Christopher Nolan and David Fincher (seeing as Terrence Malick is notoriously camera shy), producer-star Brad Pitt, actress Jessica Chastain, producer Bill Pohlad, and effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life seems certain to remain the most audacious, abstract, and ambiguous American film released this year.