Of all the many, many beautiful images from this film I think this one is my favorite.

The Tree of Life is a film that requires those elements of moviegoing acumen that are most often discarded, devalued, and ignored by the vast majority of moviegoers: attention, critical thinking, analysis, and level of empathy that has to be generated by you, not by manipulative mechanics of character and plot. This is a largely plotless movie. The scope and gravity of the narrative are such that the connective tissue is secondary to images, tone, and feeling. To even ask people to deal with this without prepackaged cynicism is ambitious. That the film contains some of the most memorable photography you’re likely to see this decade (it’s Malick after all), including several sequences of imagery that can only be described as cosmic, is already proof positive of a heady level of ambition.

It’s difficult to review The Tree of Life. It’s hard to talk about what worked for me because I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about the film. Like Malick’s other work, I’m left with some very big and unwieldly impressions as well as a feeling of disconnect brought on by the unconventional level of sheer impressionism with which this experience (because it is that, more than a film alone) was crafted.

I’m refraining from filling this review with evocative images like this one, but since this was in the trailer it’ll serve as an example.

I know that I had a lump in my throat through most of the movie, moved by secluded moments of both pain and fraternity as much as by the larger sweep of thoughtful exploration of concepts of God and innocence and grace. I know that the story of young boy torn between two ways to see life and all it contains is one that I find affecting. I know the acting was incredible. That Jessica Chastain, the woman who plays Mrs. O’Brien or Mother, is one of the most beautiful and graceful human beings I’ve ever seen. And she has to be, because she is the grace she talks about and the love and the softer, finer things she tries to teach her sons. Brad Pitt is the opposite as Mr. O’Brien or Father, who is stony and resolute, made of hard lines and harder temperament. He wants his sons to defeat the world, triumph over life. He is the pessimist and the cynic where Mother is the idealist and optimist, the woman of the New Testament God. She is love in human form and as much a metaphor for that side of the Christian God as any other in the film. On the other hand, there’s Father as the ideologically paternalistic Old Testament deity, judging and smiting and then regretting and reconciling.

The story of Jack, our main focus of the the three O’Brien children, is the same as the story of human experience of life which we tie to cosmic forces by metaphor. Although this film uses Christian ideas, quotes, imagery, and symbolism throughout there is no question that the Christian narrative is that same metaphor. This is what ties the movie’s baseline narrative to the extended “birth of the universe” sequence that takes place around halfway through. Immediately after the movie, I had a hard time connecting that and wondered why it was there at all. With an atheists cynicism for religious awe, I wondered if it was simply some pretentious attempt to liken a single human life to the life cycle of the universe. Then I realized that of course this was what was happening and it isn’t pretentious at all.

Hunter McCracken plays Jack as a boy experiencing that moment where the innocence and sureties of a child’s life are lost to hopefully be replaced with understanding and symmetry.

The idea is, obviously, that a human life is a microcosm of the same struggle between empathy and entropy that the universe experiences. This is taking some liberties with how both those words are usually used, but bear with me. In Jack’s life, in any human life, the struggle is between what Mother calls the “way of nature” and the “way of grace”. Less poetically, between two ways of looking at human existence. This is basically a Christian dichotomy and a simplification of all the complex factors involved with human life, but again: it’s a metaphor. It’s not meant to encapsulate but to evoke. And The Tree of Life does that job admirably.

The film makes consistent references to spirituality and the human relationship to God. Usually when Jack and other characters are speaking in their whispering inner monologues, they are speaking to God. Particularly, Jack’s experiences confront him with the precariousness of life, its fragility, and the concept of a morally structured universe with God at the top. I would urge atheists to look past the surface discussion of God as indicative of something more profound. The film doesn’t outright say that God is a metaphor with which we explain our own existence, but understanding that is integral to understanding why this film spends so much time on the subject of God, the cosmos, and why it opens with a Biblical passage.

 These ideas are not dealt with head-on, they are impressed upon you and then left to linger and develop in your understanding of the experience while you’re having it. It’s important to note that this is a “slow” movie and you have the time to reflect on your impressions and feelings on the fly. It’s hard to wrap my head around the scope of these ideas and I think that most people won’t be interested in trying. They’ll go in to this assuming it’s some kind of science fiction movie with sequences in the 50’s. That sucks, kind of. It’s a movie that stays with you, even as you’re watching it, and of course I have already said how beautiful it is. There isn’t a single shot in the film that isn’t an effortless monument to the beauty it is possible to capture and express with the moving camera.

Mrs. O’Brien is this film’s true soul and don’t be surprised to see a lot of the immensely talented Jessica Chastain in the future.

I feel some degree of need to debate the nature of the relationships in this movie, but I also feel like that probably isn’t the right conversation to have about it. Still, I feel like that whatever the big profound images or the delicate presentation of layers of metaphor, the relationships between the characters are the most important part. You can drop the rest and still have an incredibly moving coming-of-age story. The most affecting part of this for me was Jack’s relationship to his brother, R.L.

There is so much emotional truth in those scenes between them, even when they are infants, that I think it can really carry this movie in spite of the complaints impatient and poorly equipped viewers have lodged against it. Most of the time I felt moved and even choked up were scenes with these two. Their relationship is key to understanding the larger themes of the film, just as important as the metaphorical balance of the adults.

As a toddler, Jack experiences his first paradigm shift when his brother is brought home. He is perplexed, intrigued, and then despondent and aggressive. The same pattern plays itself out again when they are older children, after they have become loving brothers and as Jack finds himself emotionally outside of the family dynamic. He is crossing a threshold into seeing the world with an adult’s critical faculties, and it divorces him from his brothers and the simplistic but pure moralities of either parent. And the morality of R.L. who is kind, loving, and trusting. Even though his misuse of his brother is seemingly minor, Jack’s response to it is significant and incredibly moving. As he grew out of his infantile reaction to a new baby, he also grows out of the need to harm and lash out against the walls of his life, walls which he can now see. Via his newfound understanding, he is able to reconcile with his family emotionally.

This is a tiny moment with the third brother, seldom-seen, but here showing us this new side of Jack, a side that finds a balance between love and strength.

This is all very subtle stuff. You hear a kid asking why he has to be good if God isn’t. You see him grow more disobedient, more willing to test the boundaries of a child’s morality. You see a simple thing like a boy shooting his little brother, who trusts him implicitly, in the finger with a BB. These things do not spell out the depth of feeling or the profundity of meaning present in every tiny action and the values that define and drive them.

The third paradigm shift of Jack’s life happens when he is middle-aged (and played by Sean Penn), long after R.L. has died and the family’s grief has seemingly overwhelmed them. This is potentially the most impressionistic part of the movie of all and it encompasses the other two “stories” which are mostly evenly split. The metaphors are grander, but more floating, by the end of the film when we find Jack potentially accepting death and thus completing the cycle of life present in all the metaphors the film employs. I think the reason for this is that by now, the viewer should be better equipped to handle the cinematic language of the film but I’m not sure if that’s a safe bet.

The man alone wandering in the desert is another great use of Biblical imagery.

Something that I would do well to mention with more detail is the writing of the film. Like I said, it’s mostly plotless and without narrative, but the writing is spectacular. When I praise or criticize the writing in most films, it is easier to separate it out as an entity all its own. Thing like structure, pacing, etc all matter more (or period) in conventional movies than they do here. Yet Malick must be given credit for the beauty of the words that are spoken in this movie. Of course, they may have fallen much more flat had they been delivered by less talented actors or framed with less of the beautiful, the haunting, and the evocative on a directing level.

Of particular note are the hopes and teachings of Mrs. O’Brien, the words like “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” ringing out past the sentimentality and potential naivete of their message to make you believe in a way of life that does commit to such a dramatic altruism. It’s a notably Christ-like message, put in such a way and by such a figure as to haunt us and dare us beyond the scope of religious doctrine and the weight of our prejudices, fears, and baser nature.

Because that love, grace, and hope the Mother would teach her sons are the oft-invoked qualities of perseverance in the face of tragedy in an unfeeling world, with a mysterious and remote God if any God at all, with only friendship and family to tell us we aren’t alone in it.

We live in a world that should make cynics of us all. The Tree of Life is a film about daring to see things another way.