‘There are two ways through life — the way of nature and the way of grace,” remarks the saintly mother at the outset of The Tree of Life, one of the most awe-inspiring films of the 21st century. She continues:
Grace doesn’t try please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it. . . . It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it and love is smiling through all things.
I wonder what the TV Guide capsule of Terrence Malick’s inspired, autobiographical meditation on a Christian existence might say. How about: “Three members of a midcentury Texas family deal with an unbearable loss over the course of years. Also, there are dinosaurs.” Malick makes some daring, strange, brilliant choices whose connections reveal themselves only gradually and obliquely.
Starting with an epigraph from Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”), Malick meditates on a family much like his own, shifting among the perspectives of Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a strict and sometimes brutish disciplinarian; his wife (Jessica Chastain), an angel in a housedress; and Jack, one of their three sons (played by Hunter McCracken as a boy and Sean Penn as an adult). Malick wends his way through the interior monologues of these three as they reflect on their lives together in the 1950s, their responses to a catastrophic event, and the mystery of consciousness.
The template is the workings of memory, idyllic moments of sunny childhood romps interspersed with episodes of wounding and woe. Occasionally there are sudden intrusions of the surreal, as when we observe Mrs. O’Brien happily flying or swimming up from the depths of the sea to give birth. All of this is experienced via a restless, elegant Steadicam (with cinematography by the three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) smoothly roaming across the landscape of recollection.
Malick’s most breathtaking move is to segue from the adult Jack’s disillusionment to Creation, with a big bang followed by an explosion of life. In a dazzling montage, Malick revels in the details vast and infinitesimal, from the rings of Saturn to cellular division. Then he links the birth of the universe to the birth of an ordinary human boy. By the middle of the film, which has recently been reissued in a three-disc set by the Criterion Collection, Mr. O’Brien emerges as a petty, angry martinet who seems to have immersed himself in the Homer Simpson book of parenting. We cringe as he advises his boys how to deliver a sucker punch and manhandles two of them for mildly resisting his authority. At table, the boys must call him “Sir.” “The wrong people go hungry, die,” Mr. O’Brien says. “Wrong people get loved. The world lives by trickery.”
Jack, forever haunted by a death he experienced as a child, gradually emerges as an everyman, a Job who struggles to understand how God can allow suffering. His parents seem overly schematic — can anyone be as beatific as the mother or as hard-nosed as the dad? — until you realize they represent the two sides of the Almighty: God who gives and God who takes. God the forgiver and God the ruler. God who loves and God who demands. Throughout the film, the characters address themselves to God: “How did I lose you? Wandered, forgot you.” Occasionally their thoughts are bitter: “Why should I be good if you aren’t?”
The Tree of Life is an eloquent, majestic film, but I add a word of caution: It’s far outside the mainstream of contemporary filmmaking. It can’t be taken in the way we ordinarily view films at home — while we send texts to friends, check email, finish up a work project, wander out for a bowl of chips. If you can’t put your devices out of the room and set up an undisturbed, cinema-like setting in which to watch it, don’t bother. Without your full concentration, the film will mean nothing to you. If you indulge yourself a couple of diversions, you won’t even make it to the end. And you’ll be depriving yourself of something wonderful.
The Criterion Collection edition released last fall includes both the theatrical cut of 139 minutes, which was released in 2011 and was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director, and an extended cut of 188 minutes. The longer version is worth your while, but I prefer the shorter cut; Malick is given to longueurs that, in the extended cut, sometimes stray into affectation. And though I was rapt throughout the 139-minute version, with its dialogue strictly rationed and its tendency to luxuriate in a feeling or circle back on itself, it’s more of a meditation than a narrative. Two hours and twenty minutes is long enough for what Malick has to say. And what is that? That we should revel in the glories of this world and dutifully accept its pain. “We cannot stay where we are,” a pastor in the film advises. We struggle, we rise, we fall, we submit.