“Tell us a story from before we can remember.” This request, posed to his mother by one of the O’Brien boys (the one, in fact, whose death years later marks our dramatic entry point into The Tree of Life), suffuses Terrence Malick’s new work and its elliptical, headlong exploration of memory and meaning. It’s a collage in which narrative causality bends to memory’s errant patterns and the imagination’s serpentine longings. Here we have the young Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) starting a family in Waco, Texas in the 1950s; here we have their eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as a melancholic businessman in contemporary Houston; here we have Jack as a boy (Hunter McCracken) traipsing through the Waco suburbs with his brothers, drawing comfort from his mother or wishing violence upon his frustrated, disciplinarian father (“Do you love your father?” “Yes, sir.”); here we have fantasies of Mrs. O’Brien defying gravity, encased in a glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty, or mingling on some faraway beach that might resemble heaven, or at least a fleeting notion of one. And here we have interstellar plumes of gas, asteroids silently crashing into planets, light curving into the shape of a flame, and life rising up from the sea. All those things “from before we can remember,” our dreams of prehistory, our invented images of our parents’ childhoods, merge with haunting assemblies of things recalled. Malick’s approach makes no divisions between the present, the past and the deep past, between the living and the dead. You’ll walk away from The Tree of Life recalling the part where Mrs. O’Brien shields her son’s eyes from the man having an epileptic seizure, the part where the kids enjoyed their Halloween parade, or the old man who says, “Good night. We’ll see you in five years.” You’ll feel like there was a whole story somewhere in each of those, and then you’ll go back to see The Tree of Life again and realize that each of those parts was all of about three seconds long. At 67, five films and 40 years into his singular career, Malick has strayed farther from the familiar than ever before, giving us a (semi-autobiographical?) film made of glimpses, reveries, music, and disembodied voices.
It’s those voices, whispered, at times cringingly earnest, that can raise objections, but there’s an irreconcilable tension between voice-over and narrative in Malick’s films going all the way back to Badlands (1973) that’s worth keeping in mind. From The Thin Red Line (1998) on, Malick has complicated his multi-character voice-overs to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to know who to even attribute them to, including characters who’ve died. There’s a case to be made for The Tree of Life being told entirely from Jack’s perspective, though to make that case you need to accept that Jack’s perspective envelops things “from before we can remember,” even that origin-of-the-universe sequence, made in collaboration with legendary special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and which counters the voice-overs’ creationist overtones with awesome evolutionary imagery (including an exchange between dinosaurs that is for me by far the film’s goofiest risk). The intimate/specific is cast in relief against the infinite/eternal throughout The Tree of Life, so the one-way conversations with god that pervade its soundtrack should be taken as one more source of oppositional elements.
Because so much story and even character development in The Tree of Life is conveyed through the editing, through Jack Fisk's holistic, transporting production design, and through Emmanuel Lubezki’s energized and lyrical Steadicam work, performance is often a matter of gesture and attitude. Mrs. O’Brien is an idealized, ageless, beatific mother, not unlike Tarkovsky's mother figures, so Chastain is, appropriately, a diaphanous presence. Mr. O’Brien, a source of conflict and lingering resentment for Jack, has more to do, and Pitt, who also co-produced the film, is at his best here, free of the strained mannerisms that plague so many of his other films. But the performance that sticks with me most is McCracken’s, with his wounded eyes, jug ears and quiet confusion, who in some of the most engaging sequences gets into trouble with the neighbourhood kids, torments a poor frog, and enters a stranger’s house to touch foreign things and steal a woman’s slip which he guiltily disposes of in a river. McCracken’s Jack is a branch that extends out to become Penn and, it seems, Malick, our reclusive author, facilitator and dreamer, who’s gone so far out on a limb here and yet is still able to climb down, plant his feet on solid ground and perform the cinema’s oldest, most rewarding trick: transmitting a cosmos of feeling and wonder through a single, sensitive, responsive human face.