In The Tree of Life, we know that Brad Pitt’s unnamed, self-styled paterfamilias is a light smoker not because it’s ever said or observed, but because he is specifically never shown smoking—yet at one point asks for his lighter, which his son sullenly sets down on a coffee table next to a pack of cigarettes. It's a half-full soft paper pack, the kind that would quickly become crinkled if kept in a coat pocket, but is perfectly intact, as if kept in a drawer.
There are two key ingredients at work here. The first is Terrence Malick’s peculiar way with minor objects and details. The second is the absence of major details, and the subconscious detective-work that occurs on the part of the viewer. In order to just keep up with the flow of action, with the pace of a scene, the audience has to piece together characters and events based on stray clues. The Tree of Life appears to be staging a family chamber drama (the most insular of genres, where even the characters form a self-contained unit) on a cosmic scale, a sort of "Job vs. Oedipus Rex" writ extra-large, with plesiosaurs, molecular clouds, New Agey desktop background kitsch and Biblical verses all called upon to fill out the story of a frustrated father, who regards himself as a hard worker (“Never missed a day of work, tithed every Sunday,” he whispers) yet fails over and over, gradually becoming the worst enemy of his son; the son, in the meantime, entertains thoughts of killing the father and naively fantasizes about the mother. In one scene, the boy imagines her as Sleeping Beauty in a glass coffin; in another, a shot of the mother washing her feet with a garden hose replicates an earlier shot of a comely neighbor—whose negligee the boy ends up stealing—doing the same. Yet for all of this apparent overstatement, The Tree of Life is in fact chiefly defined by its colossal ellipses, redactions and red herrings.
For instance: what's the shape of the O’Brien house (their name comes from the credits and is never uttered in the film) in Waco, Texas (a setting only stated once, as lettering on the side of a truck spraying DDT), where most of the film is set? Impossible to tell; the happily roving camera, with its wide angle lenses, maps the space in so many different ways that it might as well be octopus-shaped, with rooms spiraling outwards from the kitchen. Does The Tree of Life take place in the memory and imagination of Sean Penn’s brooding architect (again, one assumes a man who spends so much time looking at blueprints must be an architect), where science intermingles with recollected flashes of childhood? Probably not; the film opens, as a matter of fact, in the memory of his mother, played by Jessica Chastain, in a recollection of her childhood on a farm, and returns there later, for a brief episode that depicts, first-person, her experience of flying in a bi-plane as a teenager. One brother dies at the age of nineteen, but which brother? Probably the middle one, R.L., but we can only assume this based on the fact that he’s featured much more prominently than the youngest boy, Steve, a specter who shows up only in the periphery of the frame and barely registers as a character (then again, that could make a case for Steve). How does he die? No idea, but certainly not in Vietnam—news of his death arrives via Western Union telegram, and not through a casualty notification officer.
Overlaying the film with Terrence Malick's biography provides a few answers. Malick's own younger brother committed suicide while abroad (which would explain the telegram); he was studying classical guitar, an instrument R.L. is shown playing several times. However, using the author's biography as a guide rarely leads very far, and in this case it still leaves a lot of issues unresolved.
For instance, we can see that the bi-focaled father is a Toscanini-obsessed church organist and a gambler, prone to jealousy and gossip. He disguises his neuroses as wise pontifications. And yet the two characters whose points-of-view the film penetrates most willingly, the mother and the eldest son, are ciphers. For as much time as she spends on screen—and as deep as Malick travels into her interior, into her memories and dreams, while contending himself with only depicting the exterior of Pitt—the mother played by Jessica Chastain remains a total mystery compared to her husband, appearing to possesses no interests and a foggy past (though, paradoxically, her childhood is shown, whereas Pitt’s is not). We glean that Pitt served in the Navy, aspired to be a musician and that his parents are Irish immigrants; we know nothing about Chastain except that she might have spent her childhood on a farm and has only been on a plane once. And eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken as a moody kid, Sean Penn as a moody grown-up) is more motif than protagonist.
Even the opening narration of the film, which sounds embarrassingly earnest at first, is completely obscure: “Brother, mother, it was they that lead me to your door.” That this sentence doesn’t mention the father who more or less dominates the film presents a problem: is he consciously being snubbed, or is he in fact the person being addressed? Or is it a He? Or are the brother and the mother the “you” being addressed—in which case, who are “they?” And again, which brother?
That many of the film’s various parts are never fully reconciled with one another doesn’t help straighten out matters much. Just getting the gist of what exactly happens in The Tree of Life—in terms of plot, chronology and point-of-view—requires a lot of guesswork, all of which is largely irrelevant.
The Tree of Life begins with a bit of cosmic goo followed by Chastain narrating (what we assume are) scenes from her childhood and uttering Malick’s pet phrase, “all things.” Then there's the telegram, then a scene where Pitt follows a distraught Chastain as she paces up and down a street, then a funeral, then a mute chorus of women lamenting, then Chastain speaking with a grandmother (Fiona Shaw) who could just as easily be an older neighbor or a family friend (again, only the credits confirm who she is, and even then, the realization that she is Pitt’s mother comes through a handful of details: her light Irish accent lines up with his surname, O’Brien, and she behaves more as a mother-in-law counsel than a parent towards Chastain). Then Penn is introduced in a dream, awakens in the present, lights a candle, goes to work and marvels at the geometric shapes of Houston’s skyline. Looking at just this first reel of the film, it becomes obvious that if The Tree of Life is set anywhere, it isn’t in Waco or in Penn’s memory, but in a constructed collective dream-state, in a sub-conscious with no conscious, where the disparate memories of individuals, animals and the landscape itself are repurposed like B-roll footage. Repurposed, it should be said, by Terrence Malick, the film’s invisible protagonist, a reclusive Old Testament God who molds characters in His own image so that they can suffer and then marvel at the beauty of His creation.
For all of its pretensions of fleeting-moment intuitiveness, Malick’s style is thoroughly artificial. The camera trains itself on stray rays of light passing over costumed actors while carefully-picked and rehearsed extras (The Tree of Life has got to have the most finely-choreographed background action of any film made in the last decade) and vintage cars go about their business. Malick has never directed a film that wasn’t a period piece, and even in The Tree of Life’s modern episodes, he seems to be constructing a facsimile of modern life—choked up with cellphones, elevators, glass and steel—more than filming the reality around him. He is a realist in the old Bazinian sense, in that he constructs an unbroken, heightened reality within the frame; as much as his style prizes chance and the uncontrollable forces of nature—clouds, water, sunlight—it relies even more heavily on careful production design and research.
The Tree of Life is arranged into movements, the significance of which is only occasionally obvious (as in the "birth of the universe" movement), but for the most part is so obscure that it borders on arbitrariness. And yet the one thing that is always clear is that these parts are definitely arranged according to some logic; the film resembles an ancient artifact whose purpose can never be fully understood. It’s possible to glean some clues from the surface, even without any knowledge of Malick’s biography; certain scenes—a child’s face been covered up by his mother’s hand so that he doesn’t see a neighbor having an epileptic seizure on the lawn, a group of children launching a frog on a rocket in a moment of innocent cruelty, a father instructing his sons to hit him over and over—are invested with an off-handed portentousness that suggests (but never confirms) that they are recreations of Malick's deeply-held private memories and worries.
All of this to say that this is a phenomenologist’s anti-phenomenological movie (meaning: not very anti-phenomenological at all). Every shot is firmly rooted in a different perspective, but they are all arranged together according to Malick’s somewhat enigmatic, godlike design. The film introduces a big red herring early on: a reductive dialectic ("nature" vs., uh, "grace") that it never expands on, preferring to use the possibility of such a dialectic as a leitmotif, no different from the various candles (the blue candle on Penn’s kitchen table; the red candle Pitt lights in the church) and bedrooms (the intimate shared bedroom of the boys; the lonely master bedroom where Penn and his wife sit at the beginning of the film, which may very well be in the house Pitt and Chastain are seen living in the preceding scene).
Malick's intersubjective epic—set in inner, not outer, space—is a creation myth in the guise of a crypto-autobiography. It toes pop Brakhage territory, explores Finnegans Wake, Jr. territory and—most importantly—travels further into Malick territory than any other film, and in the process becomes an odd objet d'art: inscrutable, composed of enigmatic variations, full of suggestive themes that probably only its director fully understands.
Instead of looking for the universal in the specific (which Malick's supporters tend to portray him as doing), it hoists its specifics up on supports of old-fashioned universality (which is what Malick—a romantic, a man of the 19th century—really does). Malick's neither a great philosopher nor a great poet, and he probably has a firm enough grasp of both subjects to know that, yet his images are marked by what seems to be an uncontrollable impulse to philosophize and write poetry. Rather than being the story of a family or Malick's particular family or the history of life on Earth, The Tree of Life ends up being the story of that impulse.
For all of their cheeseball awe, what Malick's last three films (The Thin Red Line, The New World and this one) express most thoroughly is not some vague concept about the beauty of nature or the brotherhood of mankind, but Malick himself, and the way these ideas exist in his head. The disunity of Tree's individual parts—which oscillate between slick kitsch and disarming intimacy—is the film's point, not its problem. Underneath it all, it expresses nothing universal except the filmmaker's own need to see life—probably his own—on a universal scale.
And that impulse is in and of itself profound. It stands somewhere between selfishness and selflessness, caprice and confession. There's simply no other American filmmaker in recent decades who has had such ambition. It's one part ballsiness, one part self-criticism; if the negligee episode, for instance, is auto-biographical, it has to have been one helluva painful memory to bring up—and it, in turn, to borrow a phrase from Pitt's character, takes one helluva fierce will to foist it on an audience. With The Tree of Life, it becomes clear that when Malick has sought to express human smallness—placing his characters within landscapes and historical periods that operate independently of them—it's always been his own, an overpowering smallness that he imposes on to his characters and sets.
And what to make of the final scene, where Jessica Chastain, in all of her pale Pre-Raphaelite beauty, intones "I give you my son" to no one in particular? What to make of all the characters, living and dead together at last, wandering around a seashore?
It's an apocalypse. Malick has constructed a universe of his own from memory; he even goes as far as to show its creation, giving all of the animals the capacity to do violence and imbuing all of the humans with remorse. And since this universe exists only for the purposes of The Tree of Life, as the movie ends, it must too.