Follow Jack O'Brien from his upbringing in the 1950's Midwest, through his complicated relationship with his father (Pitt), to his adult life in the modern world, as he seeks answers to the origins and meaning of life.
Cormac McCarthy once said the only thing he could ever imagine writing about was life and death, because nothing else would ever be important enough to waste time and words on. I imagine if someone were to ask Terence Malick that question his response would be similar but would focus instead on human beings and nature.
His films, since his return to active directing in 1998, have been heading more and more in that direction, comparing the strangeness our sapient lives running around the face of our largely ignorant planet, and what that means for us and the world we live in. That fascination has found its apotheosis in "The Tree of Life."
It would be the height of arrogance to try and describe what "Tree of Life" is about except to say that it is about everything. Or at the very least about the chain of events leading up to the creation of the Earth and life on it, and the discord our lives take as our own inborn natures lead us away from the reality we stemmed from, the original Eden which is all around us all the time.
If you haven't gotten that point by the beginning of a 30-minute piece of nearly silent cinema as Malick visually represents the creation of the Earth up through the extinction of the dinosaurs, you will have after. "Tree of Life" is probably Malick's most on the nose film, at least compared other Malick films.
The specific discord in question is focused around the turbulent young life of Jack (Hunter McCracken) growing up in post-war Waco, Texas. Jack is torn between the idealism of life as represented by his beauteous, loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and the reality of life in the form of his domineering father (Brad Pitt).
To be fair that is an extremely focused version of an extremely scattered narrative, and that's being very loose with the word 'narrative.' Malick's philosophical bent and investigations into our place in the world (and vice versa) is in full force, as is his desire to push pure cinema to its absolutes without devolving into pure abstraction.
Once you can get past that notably large stylistic convention, there is a lot take from "Tree of Life," beginning with it being without question the best looking film released so far this year. And below the surface it plums deep emotional depths and character complexities in just a handful of masterful strokes.
The darkness and reality of the world has slowly driven Mr. O'Brien down and down from wanting to be a classical pianist to being a failed industrial engineer who has overlooked, as most of us do, that which is most important until almost too late. It's sharply realistic take on middleclass life and a darkness O'Brien unfortunately passes on to his own son; a darkness that follows him all the days of his life until he becomes a grown man (Sean Penn) not too different from his father.
And that is really just the surface of what "Tree of Life" has to offer as Malick works to place the struggle of everyday life against the context of the Earth and all its history. To suggest that despite how small we are against the fabric of the Universe, in our minuteness we matter.
Performances are all around excellent as well; because of his experimental nature we forget Malick is an excellent director of actors as well, creating natural performances in extremely abstract settings. In particular, the trio of young actors playing Pitt's children are stellar, especially McCraken as he comes to question his father's hypocrisy while simultaneously following him into a path of cruelty. And Pitt himself has never been better, thoroughly inhabiting O'Brien's complicated nature.
It's not an easy film to set through by any stretch of the imagination; unless you're heavily into the experimental it's only marginally entertaining. But at the same time it is awesome, and in the original sense of the word. In its meditation on awe, it is inspires the same feeling.