The Tree of Life

The reason I didn’t review Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” when it was released in May was that I didn’t know what to say about it. This was partly because I didn’t know what it was saying to me. I knew that I’d been mesmerized by its gloriously dreamlike narrative and stunning visuals, and that it had impacted me profoundly. But I couldn’t articulate why or how or to what end. This made me feel dumb and frustrated, so I skipped the review and moved on to “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” which was easier to understand and describe.

It was a non-critic friend who came up with the most succinct description of “The Tree of Life”: “It’s like watching a poem for two hours.” He meant it as a compliment, but you can imagine someone who hated it saying the same thing. (“It’s like watching a POEM for two hours!!”) I have a spotty track record when it comes to appreciating fine poetry, but I identified with this one. I kept my friend’s description in mind when I re-watched the movie and found that now that I was thinking in the right terms, I could express my feelings about it more easily.

Like many poems, “The Tree of Life” is about several abstract concepts: the purpose of life, the meaning of suffering, the nature of man, and the nature of God. Such an agenda often sets the stage for stifling pretentiousness, but Malick addresses the themes earnestly and, I think, in as down-to-earth a fashion as possible. A movie rooted in philosophy is bound to feel, well, philosophical. Expecting a filmmaker to avoid highfalutin’ imagery and ideas when he’s examining The Nature of Man is like expecting a geometry teacher to avoid talking about angles.

Unbound by chronology, the film takes us casually bouncing through time, from the beginning of life on Earth to the end of it. Summarized in a more traditional way, the movie’s story is as follows. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise three sons in Texas in the 1950s, in what many viewers will identify as a normal, wholesome, all-American way. The father is stern and exacting with his boys, though not unkind; he genuinely loves his sons but doesn’t know how to express his affection except through authoritarianism. As in many families, while the father is the disciplinarian, the mother is the nurturer, a reliable beacon of warmth. The oldest of the kids, Jack (Hunter McCracken), by birthright gets the brunt of his father’s high expectations, and is first to rebel against them. In the present day, a grown-up Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on his childhood.

Though Mr. O’Brien is presented as the main character, and though he’s played quite well by a surprisingly introspective Brad Pitt, it’s really Hunter McCracken’s unaffected and very natural performance as young Jack that holds the movie together. Jack is our surrogate, the one whose experiences and struggles are meant to make us think about our own. Jack’s questions about his father mirror his questions about God. If he loves me, why is he stern and often unapproachable? Why does he demand that I show my love for him in a particular way (Mr. O’Brien wants a filial kiss on the cheek at bedtime) instead of letting me express myself however I see fit? Why does he tell me to be charitable when he himself appears to be vengeful and jealous?

Jack’s parents represent the two sides of mankind’s eternal struggle. Mr. O’Brien is the natural man, the one who strives and competes and seeks to take what is his. He believes the world is uncaring and unfair, and he wants his sons never to be taken advantage of by anyone. A talented musician, he left behind his artistic side to become an engineer (the most practical of mindsets). Part of him regrets the choice; the other part believes wealth and happiness are still attainable if only he can catch a break in this dog-eat-dog world.

Mrs. O’Brien, meanwhile, is grace and compassion. Played by the luminous Jessica Chastain, she summarizes her outlook in whispered voice-overs: “The only way to be happy is to love.” “Grace … accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries.” “Help each other. Love everyone.” “Forgive.” These are the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom she believes in, and though her faith is tested by tragic events, it isn’t broken by them. She knows that the path of grace is the right one. For this her husband calls her naive. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” he says. “If you’re good, people take advantage of you.”

And he’s not wrong, is he? Sometimes our natural, selfish impulses save our lives, and sometimes being meek leads to being hurt. This battle between nature and grace plays out for all of us, whether we consciously think about it or not. What I love about “The Tree of Life” is that it invites us to consciously think about it. Malick uses the gentle rhythms of poetry and the majestic images of the natural world to bring us to a meditative state. (That could also be a way of saying he puts us to sleep. Your mileage may vary.) Without a strict linear timeline, the movie is free to ponder the big questions, and to help us do the same without feeling we’ve been lectured or preached to.

The only part of the film that rings false to me are the scenes with adult Jack. For one thing, the present-day version of that character would have to be about 70, not Sean Penn’s age. But more importantly, the few minutes of screen time that he has are devoted to reminiscing rather than living: the character doesn’t do anything.

But these are relatively minor complaints about a superbly graceful film, one that begs to be experienced rather than scrutinized. It aims to invoke feelings and emotions more than concrete ideas, and so the specific details don’t matter much. (Maybe that’s why Penn’s scenes, set in the here and now amid mundane workaday cares, seem out of place: they’re too specific.) Few movies even make a serious attempt at this level of contemplation, let alone succeed at it. That’s why “The Tree of Life” is a wonder.

A- (2 hrs., 19 min.; PG-13, mild profanity and thematic material.)