What would be the essential elements of the most pretentious movie possible? You'd need an ambitious filmmaker bored with conventional, linear narratives. Characters should wander around doing nothing, ideally while whispery voice-overs ruminate on abstract concepts like "God" or "grace." You might even include an interlude that spans the origins of the Earth, from the Big Bang to the rise of dinosaurs. Lard the soundtrack with opera music. And for maximum self-importance, Sean Penn's presence is always a plus.
Director Terrence Malick tags all the grandiose bases in The Tree of Life — he doesn't even give names to most of the roles. Inevitably, Malick's meditation on childhood and the meaning of life won the 2011 Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. More surprisingly, The Tree of Life turns out to be a beautiful, affecting film, provided you have the patience to take it on its own terms.
Malick maintains a Thomas Pynchon-like level of personal secrecy, but he reportedly based The Tree of Life heavily on his own childhood. His cinematic roman à clef seeks the universal on a shady lane in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. We perceive family life based on the fractured impressions of Jack, one of three sons to Brad Pitt's stern Father and Jessica Chastain's nurturing Mother. Hunter McCracken portrays tweenage Jack, but we glimpse his life from infancy to adolescence, and also skip ahead to his middle age, when he's played by Penn.
Early on, The Tree of Life informs us of one of the sons' death, so grief sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Malick opens with a quote from the Book of Job and the various narrators frequently mention God, encouraging the audience to wrestle with the paradox of a loving deity that still permits terrible suffering. The evolution of life sequence reveals the scope of God's handiwork, from the formation of the Earth to the development of one-celled organisms to a plesiosaur wallowing on a beach. It's like Fantasia's "Rite of Spring" sequence but with state-of-the-art special effects.
That cosmological context puts Jack's parents into another perspective. Chastain's luminous, emotionally transparent performance as Mother may not be simply a mom, but also a metaphor for a Creator as a nurturing bringer of life. Father comes across as the kind of authoritarian God who lays down commandments.
As the boys grow older, their tension with Father gives The Tree of Life its most tangible conflict. But Pitt and Malick don't demonize the dad, who hugs his boys nearly as often as he holds them accountable for petty rules. We find clues about his personal frustrations — he's a former musician who wears a necktie like a shackle and suffers repeated setbacks in his career. Pitt expertly conveys Father's subtle signs of affection as well as his implosive anger. The performance is comparable to the actor's impressively minimal work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
The Tree of Life unfolds primarily in short, elliptical scenes that frequently keep the camera and cast in motion, so everything's in some kind of flux even when nothing seems to be happening. The style replicates the weird vividness of life experience from a child's point of view, as well as the fragmented nature of old memories. As Jack gets older, he tries to process his early sexual impulses, commits petty vandalism with packs of boys, and demonstrates protective tenderness to his younger brother.
Malick's cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki crafts breathtakingly beautiful images, but the childhood scenes go on so long, Jack could be growing up in real time. Penn, meanwhile, gets so little screen time it's hard to connect his character to the rest of the film's conflicts. The Tree of Life ends with a dream-vision that feels like Malick's attempt to impose a more optimistic ending than justified by the film's stark spiritualism. At least The Tree of Life generously provides its audience with ideas and images to chew on afterward, so its pretensions pay off.