Describing the plot of The Tree of Life almost feels unnecessary. I've read review after review that describe the film's plotting as "elliptical," yet this description seems to go a step too far. This is not an easy film, nor is it one that provides easy answers, but labeling the whole thing as ambiguous and obscure is extreme. The great bulk of it, concerning a family in a small Texas town in the 50s, despite having very little dialogue, is certainly not impenetrable or obtuse. Some scenes carry with them (appropriately) a child-like sense of naivete, while others quietly carry the weight of suffering and loss. Because, above all else, The Tree of Life is a film of sight and sound, often in glorious combinations.
To say that it encompasses everything is not an overstatement. After an opening where Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) learns that her middle son has died, and some jumps to the present involving her oldest son Jack (Sean Penn), we see the beginning. Literally. For some 20 or 30 minutes, Malick plunges us into gorgeously rendered visions of the cosmos, and of earth's earliest, primordial moments. We see space clouds shine in shades of gold, brown, and red. We see the staggering size of Saturn and Jupiter loom over the screen, set to the glorious sounds of Zbigniew Preisner's "Lacrimosa." We see cells dividing and merging, and blood flowing through veins. In every sense, this is a film that shows us the intimate and the epic, with everything from domestic drama to some soulful, curious dinosaurs.
Throughout all of this, the one unifying element is the sheer beauty of it all. Mr. Malick may be influenced by Christianity (the O'Briens are obviously Christian, and the film opens with a quote from the Book of Job), but this is not a religious film. It is a spiritual film, one that seeks to evoke the glory that life holds, without shying away from its moments of sadness and failure. We witness gentle, playful moments with the O'Brien children as toddlers, which gradually become more serious and nuanced as the children begin to experience the darker side of life. Some of it is direct (the oppressive nature of Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien), some of it indirect (a young boy who drowns at a swimming pool). All of it, whether simplistic or strange, somehow rings true through Malick's direction, which creates a spiritual experience out of life's most plain rites, rituals, and routines.
And yet all of it is captured with such quiet elegance, thanks to the astoundingly beautiful work by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The frequent use of handheld camera work bequeaths even the most mundane of scenes with a sense of vitality, even the more abstract scenes involving Mr. Penn's lost wanderings through Houston skyscrapers. And Mr. Malick's impulses, namely subjective shots of nature, have never felt more appropriate or refined in their usage as they have here. When this technique was used in The New World (2005), a film I was not a fan of, I often thought to myself that Malick should have just made a nature documentary. Here, the establishment of the subjective shots, whether they be for the humans or the dinosaurs, carries more purpose, and further illuminates the wonders of life and creation that Malick is trying to capture. The heavy use of voice over, often rambling and tiresome in The New World (and flat-out irritating in Days of Heaven) is now focused and filled with surer purpose than ever before.
But there is still a great deal of heart among all of the beauty, both mundane and otherworldly, to be found here. Mr. Malick may be more interested in using the O'Briens as a focal point for his gargantuan exploration of existence, but the family still comes through as actual characters. Young Jack (Hunter McCraken), carries much of the film, as his transformation from toddler to pre-teen encapsulates the loss of innocence, and understanding of growing up that is so key to this story. Whether the O'Brien boys are playing music, or silently, tearfully mourning the family's need to leave their home, Malick and his actors capture it all through facial cues. Even in the film's finale, perhaps the most difficult portion to make sense of, it's hard to ignore that we're experiencing something of beauty and magnitude, even if we're not entirely sure what it all means.
This is not a film to be explained (though you can certainly give it a shot), but rather one to be experienced. Its length and pacing are occasionally trying, but for a story with so little dialogue, it accomplishes so much more than any number of more verbose films. It's also not a film for everyone, and I'll confess that I was nervous that I would feel the same towards Tree as I did toward The New World. But any way you slice it, Malick's latest remains a massive achievement. Whether you think that it's completely self-conscious, pretentious, and insufferable, or a luminous meditation on the nature of life itself is up for grabs, but you can't know unless you actually see it. The Tree of Life is, more than any film which I've ever described as such, one that deserves to be seen, thought over, and discussed, even if you come to the conclusion that it's all a load of spiritual and philosophical hogwash.