“Tree of Life” poses unanswerable questions

By Drew Hunt

Reclusive director Terrence Malick has unleashed into theaters his latest, Palme d’Or-winning film. Ever the introvert, Malick made sure to keep any information close to his vest, amassing a slew of buzz. With his having made only five films in 35 years, each new release from the Illinois native is something of an event.

The new film, “The Tree of Life,” wrestles with our world’s most unanswerable questions, and from the outset, Malick pulls no punches in his intentions the try and answer them. Opening the film is a quotation from the Book of Job in which God proclaims to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have an understanding.”

The Bible is never forthrightly cited again, but the film’s central conflict clearly lies in humanity’s inability to comprehend the immensity of existence, how it began and where it’s headed. These are vast, unfathomable questions the movie asks in moments of great personal distress, most often depicted in a whispered voiceover that calls out to an unnamed but obvious entity, posing questions as dejected as, “What are we to you?”

But “The Tree of Life” isn’t a foray into Old Testament-style condemnation, nor is it snarky secularism. Instead, it’s an infinitely moving film that gorgeously depicts one man’s struggle to find his place in the world, even if it means going back to its very origins.

That man is Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn). Via an untraditional narrative structure—calling it nonlinear would come close to describing it, but even that doesn’t suffice—we see his adulthood as a despondent architect as well as his childhood, growing up in the Eisenhower-era suburbia of Waco, Texas. His father, played by Brad Pitt, is an overbearing yet well-intentioned man who seeks to instill a myriad of life lessons upon his three sons but mostly manages to turn them against him. Jack, the eldest of the bunch, has a complicated relationship with his father which carries into his adult life and continues to trouble him.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of “The Tree of Life” is the ease with which it unfolds. The film is often ponderous and overly meticulous in its design, which tends to be a death sentence for lesser directors. The likes of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan keep such a tight grip on their work that any and all life is effectively squeezed out them, leaving nothing but empty stylization.

Thanks to Malick’s clarity of vision, however, “The Tree of Life” feels as contained as it is expansive. For all of its metaphysical navel-gazing and formal complexity, the film is a candid recollection of an American childhood, which Malick fuses with well-known autobiographical elements and a bevy of references to his own personal milieu.

Admittedly ostentatious scenes of celestial gasses coming together to form the origins of the universe and early life simmering in a primordial soup are rendered inseparable from a world of neatly trimmed lawns and games of kick-the-can. Malick is a product of this environment and has paid homage to it a number of films, most notably in the dusty, small-town feel of his first film, 1973’s “Badlands.”

His memory of childhood probably differs very little from the postwar landscape of “The Tree of Life,” driving home the idea that much of Jack’s contemplation stems from Malick’s own personal exploration.

In this regard, the film relies heavily on the feelings that arise in the act of memory. Malick’s ultimate aim is to represent the perception of memory by way of a stunningly advanced visual style. He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki often compose the film around the minutiae of life—seen, for example, in young Jack’s daily meanderings with his friends—yet capture them in astonishing detail with a camera that floats unmoored from the ground, like a hovering orb unfettered by time or space.

To watch “The Tree of Life” is to admire its indulgence. Yes, it’s audacious and more than just a little pretentious. But Malick’s vision, however lofty it may be, is effortlessly imaginative. There is daring artistry in each frame, composed more like an epic poem than anything resembling traditional cinema.