Terrence Malick, the famously secretive director of DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE, and THE NEW WORLD, has produced and directed his masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE. Malick is primarily a sensualist and images and music are what interest him most. So it is no wonder that when this film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, it did so to lavish praise and boos of derision. Those who like a straight, linear story told at a fast pace will not "get" Malick's treatise on the two major human drives. One is grace; the other is nature.
To illustrate this tension, Malick sets his intimate story in Waco, Texas, in the 1950's, where the nurturing Mrs. O'Brien embodies grace. She is played with luminous warmth by Jessica Chastain, who also shone in THE HELP this year. Nature, both creative and destructive, is seen in Mr. O'Brien, played by Brad Pitt, who manages the difficult role of a strict disciplinarian who believes that his sons should be tough and ready for the world that has disappointed him. This small and commonplace story is couched in a spectacular series of images that include pre-history, the destruction of the world, the creation (compared to the birth of the O'Brien's first child), and magnificent views of the natural world, both grand and intimate.
As an adult, Jack, the eldest son, is a successful architect, who has never accepted the death of his younger brother at the age of 19. Jack is played by Sean Penn. Most of the reactions to the young man's death are heard in whispery voice-overs from Jack and his parents. What is Malick trying to tell us about life and death that hasn't been said in other films such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (an obvious influence) or Disney's creation sequence in FANTASIA? Nothing and everything. Malick's gift is to remind us that there is more to believe than what Mr. O'Brien says about learning to be mean in a mean world. He seems to favor grace over nature with images of Mrs. O'Brien bathed in light, even seeming to float above the earth.
THE TREE OF LIFE is now on DVD, though it would be preferable to see it on the big screen. Still, with HD and/or Blu-Ray, this a remarkable film that you will discuss at length when you watch it with those you love.