The Tree of Life is more museum piecethan movie. Its characters often ruminate in whispers, and its grandness of scope may implore you to speak in hushed tones, too. After all, this is only Terrence Malick’s fifth film in nearly 40 years—and one he’s reportedly been developing for almost as long—which means it’s an event. With its parallel depictions of the birth of the universe and a family in 1950s Texas, it must be plumbing deep meanings, right?
Eh. You’ll be forgiven if you don’t make the connection between dinosaurs and a stern suburban dad; if you do, fantastic. The Tree of Life is nothing if not divisive: You’ll either be swept up by its impressionistic contemplations of birth, death, God, the universe, and All That Is, or it will leave you cold. Count me in the latter camp.
Malick opens with a quote from the Book of Job, and then the whispers begin. “Brother, mother—it was they who led me to your door,” says an unseen boy. What we do see is a nebulous orange figure, flamelike, against a black background. Then there’s another voiceover, this one coming from the saintlike mother of the O’Brien clan (Jessica Chastain, so fair and innocent-looking she may as well have Disney-esque woodland creatures scampering about around her). “There are two ways through life,” she says. “The way of nature, and the way of grace.” Representing grace, she’s the type of person who loves and marvels and in return feels the eternal hug of all the love and magic in the world. The way of nature…well, that’s her bastard husband, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt). “[Nature] finds reasons to be unhappy,” she says.
Mrs. O’Brien then receives a telegram informing her of the death of one of her three sons; we don’t know which boy it is or how he died. Fast-forward to the family’s eldest, Jack, as an adult (Sean Penn). Jack doesn’t say much—no one does, really—except in voiceover: “The world’s gone to the dogs, people are greedy, keep getting worse.” Penn spends the bulk of his brief screen time looking disgruntled, with flashbacks suggesting that Jack (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken) has had a chip on his shoulder since boyhood.
Said flashbacks really are just that—flashes. There’s no linear narrative here, just glimpses of the O’Brien family as the kids grow up. There’s an astonishing little bit of “acting” from a toddler, presumably Jack, as he meets his baby brother, his expression at once telegraphing curiosity, tenderness, and jealousy. A neighborhood child drowns. Mostly, though, there are scenes of the boys screwing around, doing everything except having a conversation. Often it’s innocent play, though as Jack gets older, he develops a dark side, stealing his mother’s lingerie, busting windows, and shooting his brother with a BB gun.
The most memorable scenes involve Pitt, whose disciplinarian father will leave the knees of your inner child knocking while your adult self mutters “asshole.” He teaches his boys how to fight, demanding that they sock him in the jaw. When he gets stormy, he banishes them from the dinner table for minor offenses. He’s always teaching them, largely to be the opposite of their mother. While she says, “Help each other. Love everyone. Forgive,” Mr. O’Brien tells them, “If you’re good, people take advantage of you.” But presumably that advice is meant for their future selves. In the meantime, they better eat their peas and hush the fuck up lest they get their asses whupped.
Mr. O’Brien’s anger stems from his own perceived inadequacies. An aspiring inventor with frustrated ambitions, he tells the kids: “You make yourself what you are. You make your own destiny. You can’t say ‘I can’t.’” But all he’s fashioned is a family comprising a proto-flower-child wife and three insolent brats in humdrum suburbia, and it’s obvious he hates himself for it.
In between scenes of the O’Briens, Malick offers you the creation of the universe. Its beauty and sweep can’t be denied. There’s the Big Bang; there are wisps of smoke and rolling waves and towering trees and constellations and amoebas. Those aforementioned dinosaurs make a not-insignificant appearance. It’s all accompanied, 2001-style, by recognizable classical themes. And, depending on your viewpoint, it all seems to signify nothing, at least in terms of the O’Briens’ story. This was intentional: The film’s visual effects supervisor has described the nature and cosmological sequences as “not narratively connected, but thematically complementary.” The family unit as a mini-universe, maybe? Sure, why not.
With little else in the film being clear, the theme of spirituality pops. The voiceover whispers are almost always prayerlike, ranging from innocent (“Keep us. Guide us.”) to doubting (“Why should I be good if you aren’t?”) to sinister (says Jack, regarding his father: “Please, God, kill him”). Near the quixotic end, Mrs. O’Brien seems to accept her son’s death: “I give him to you.” Of course, the way of grace and the way of nature sees the divine in two different ways: God can be gentle, or he can be cruel, allowing such things as accidental deaths. Do with this what you will, Malick seems to suggest, though the film’s final thoughts fall on the side of grace. (“Unless you love,” Mrs. O’Brien says in voiceover, “your life will flash by.”)
The final scene is another puzzler. Penn’s Jack returns, walking through a doorway on a dream-state beach. He sees his younger self; he sees his mother in her younger years, as well. There are a whole lot of other people, too, most of them making their appearance for the first time, wandering around as triumphant music booms. We eventually return to that orange nebula as an “Amen” chorus rings out. Earlier in the film, Mr. O’Brien says, “Some day we’ll fall down and weep, and we’ll understand it all.” Maybe, but Malick’s film doesn’t move that day a second closer.