It's a simple enough story. A husband and wife react to the news that their son has died. Some years later, the anniversary of the death finds one of their surviving sons, now a businessman, in a funk, or more of a funk than normal. He has a tense chat with his still-living dad over the phone and spends the day brooding over his childhood, idealizing his mother and somewhat demonizing his father, not in small part for being what the son himself has become. The son comes to terms, for the time being, by visualizing a place of universal reconciliation where his mother (living or dead in the present?) receives a kind of apotheosis and everyone else is forgiving and forgiven. By doing so, he seems to be following his idolized mother's advice. And from there, life goes on.
The film is not so simple. That's because Terrence Malick made it. The Tree of Life is Malick's fifth film in a 38-year directing career (the sixth is reportedly already in post-production) and since his acclaimed debut with Badlands in 1973 each new Malick movie is treated as a major event. None was more major, at least in theory, than 1998's The Thin Red Line, Malick's third feature and his first in twenty years. It proved a divisive film, admirers praising its pictorial grandeur and spiritual concerns, critics calling it both pretentious and crass in its casting of big-name stars in small roles. Seven years later came Malick's Jamestown epic The New World, again divisive though in my view a significant improvement on The Thin Red Line, and six years after that comes the new picture.
Malick divides audiences because he defies many of the narrative conventions of mainstream cinema. He's a writer-director who recognizes that cinema is essentially something different from theater and has thus striven to make cinema a mode of expression unbound by the conventions and expectations of theater. He deals with themes that can't be resolved in a single decisive conversation, but he also uses images (some say in profligate fashion) to evoke mood or provoke thought or feeling. If you expect every frame in a film to advance the plot of a story in some quantifiable way, Malick's work will increasingly rub you the wrong way. It will seem self-indulgent, and sometimes leave you wondering what the point of some scenes are. The Tree of Life forces the issue frequently, most notoriously already in a bridge sequence from the brooding of the adult Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) to the major flashback sequence of the film. The bridge is a sequence illustrating the creation of the universe and life on Earth, culminating in a scene in which a dinosaur menaces, then spares an injured rival. The sequence leaves many viewers scratching their heads, and I'm not sure how much I can help them. My problem with it is that I'm not sure whether it's the vision of Jack O'Brien or the vision of Terrence Malick. The difference matters, but the distinction between subjective envisioning and directorial intervention is blurry throughout the film.
The mystery of Tree of Life is whether it's essentially a character study of Jack, in which case we can comprehend (if not understand) all the visions as emanations from his troubled mind, or a philosophical statement by the director, in which case the visions are presumably meant as assertions of objective truth. The distinction is more crucial when we think about the philosophical and emotional states represented by Jack's mom and dad. The difference between them is first stated in the voice of Jack's mother (Jessica Chastain), who posits (in Malick's preferred manner of voiceover rather than dialogue) a difference between the "way of nature" and the "way of grace." Perhaps controversially, she identifies the way of "nature" as a state of perpetual narcissistic resentment; the "natural" man resents life itself for its limits and the way it limits his aspirations, and takes his frustration out on others. This is clearly how Jack sees his father (Brad Pitt), a would-be classical pianist and inventor who toils in an unfulfilling white-collar job and spends his downtime trying to harden his three sons into disciplined, realistic and self-reliant men. Mother herself represents the "way of grace," which is pretty much the practice of unconditional loving acceptance of all things and all people. Her initial utterance seems to pose a stark choice between the two ways, but Jack himself, reminiscing in the voice of his younger self (Hunter McCracken), confesses that impulses in both directions are constantly pulling at him. Fair enough. But is this just what Jack believes, or is it what Malick himself believes? To ask it differently, does Malick believe that Jack is right? Does Malick see life in terms of nature versus grace, and does he recommend grace? Or is his ultimate point, Jack's closing epiphany (itself problematic; if Jack's father is still alive, why doesn't he visualize an older Brad Pitt on the beach?) notwithstanding, that like Jack, we all have to wrestle and to an extent reconcile the two great impulses? I can't answer for certain.
My uncertainty is based in part on Malick's almost pre-modern reduction of his family to archetypes. Jack's parents don't even have proper names; they are addressed (at the father's insistence, we learn) as "Father" and "Mother," and in Jack's own mind his own brothers are usually addressed as "Brother." Despite Malick's attempt to base his verbiage in character, it results in impossible sounding voiceover utterances -- especially impossible in a child's voice -- like: "Mother, Father: Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will." Moments like that tempt you to think that Malick means the O'Briens to be a symbolic family representing the general human condition -- in which case we're presumably not seeing the subjective reveries of a particular troubled person, but an oracular directorial vision of which the O'Briens are just a part. On the other hand, Malick gives the film enough detail to keep the O'Briens particular personalities -- though Mother is pretty much too good to be true. So no matter what Malick intends, there's still room to see whatever you see as the product of a particular mind of a character film rather than Malick's directives on how to live. For some viewers, clinging to Jack's subjectivity may make Tree a more tolerable experience, while treating it as Malick's sermon might render it intolerable.
Because Malick has such a strong directorial stamp, his movie probably won't please people who prefer seamless narrative illusions. Visually his style has become more cumulative than narrative, building impressions with collections of fragmentary images and vignettes rather than with theatrically linear and conventional dialogue scenes. Throughout his career, he's been fond of voiceovers to an extent that's bordered on the anti-cinematic, as if he didn't trust his images and incidents to convey the right message. Since the debacle of The Thin Red Line, he's grown subtler in his use of voiceover, to the point where The Tree of Life arguably employs what might be called unreliable voiceovers. Whether you agree with me depends, again, on whether what we see at any moment is a subjective memory of Jack's or an objective statement by Malick. I'm inclined to think that it's all subjective, including the supposed voiceovers by other actors. When Hunter McCracken reads that awful line I quoted above as a voiceover, for instance, it's my belief that it's actually the adult Jack "speaking" in his younger self's voice. Moreover, since we have no proof of any intellectual ambition on the part of Jack's mother, and we never see her speaking with such sophistication in dialogue, I'd suggest that the opening lines about the ways of nature and grace, spoken by Jessica Chastain in voiceover, are also actually expressions of Jack's nostalgia, if not his own projection onto his mother of a philosophy she may not necessarily have stated explicitly herself. On the other hand, since Malick doesn't write dialogue in a theatrical way, we could interpret the voiceovers not as representations of what a character is thinking at a given moment, but as abstract summations of characters' personalities. If so, Malick might deserve credit for finding a way to give voiceovers more cinematic potential by unmooring them from the here-and-now of any given shot and thus liberating them from redundancy. The project may still need work, but I think he's making progress.
But if all this commentary about technique and philosophy is scaring anyone from the film, let me draw you back in by saying that what Malick does best in Tree of Life is pretty easily comprehensible for anyone. The core of the film is a recreation of childhood, and while it's based on a specific, lost moment in American history (the 1950s) it's still incredibly evocative in ways just about anyone should recognize. Malick recaptures a multitude of little moments that everyone has experienced, though I may be speaking for boys rather than girls, and that authenticity is the essential foundation for everything else he attempts. The fragmentary, fleeting way in which he presents these moments also looks like a fair match for the way we remember the past, not in a dramatically linear way but more by bits and pieces, in haphazardly holistic fashion. I suspect that anyone who takes a chance on Tree will come away with an appreciation of Malick's solid achievement in this area, even if other aspects of the film leave them reeling or merely baffled. I'd also say, despite my own reservations, that any self-described fan of cinema (as opposed to those who just go to see a story) should take the chance and give Tree of Life a try. It's this year's ultimate in summer counterprogramming, and if not necessarily the year's best film it'll certainly be one of its most ambitious.