Terence Malick’s latest—arriving a relatively snappy six years after his last picture—is a movie about first things: the meaning of existence, the ways of God, the bewildering sorrows of the human condition. The Tree of Life is spectacularly beautiful in its contemplation of eternal wonders—from the roiling creation of the universe to the gentle settling of a butterfly on the up-reaching hand of a suburban housewife (one of the director’s most remarkable found moments). While the film is centrally concerned with a Texas family in the 1950s, the movie it most strongly recalls is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Running well over two hours, Malick’s exquisitely speculative picture might not seem to offer a lively night out at the multiplex (where few are likely to find it playing anyway); but it’s a hypnotic and—rarest of feats—spiritually enthralling experience.
It begins (appropriately, as we soon realize) with a quotation from the harrowing Book of Job. Then we see a nebulous aurora glowing in the primordial void of space, the beginning of all beginnings. Untold billions of years later, we meet the Hendersons: father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain), and their three young sons, Jack, R.L., and Steve (played strikingly well by first-time actors Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan). Their story is presented out of sequence, as pieces of an existential mosaic. First we see Mrs. Henderson (she and her spouse have no given names) receiving a distressing telegram. She phones her husband at work with the news it contains, and he, too, is distraught. One of their sons has died. “Lord, why?” the mother wonders, crushed by grief. “Where were you?” A grandmother (Fiona Shaw) tries to console her. “The Lord gives and takes away,” she says. “That’s the way He is.”
The parents themselves might represent the two sides of God’s nature. Mrs. Henderson is the embodiment of unconditional love and forgiveness. Her husband, however, while loving his family deeply, is also a fierce disciplinarian. (Asked by one of his sons if a friend might come over to visit, the father harshly replies, “Is your family not good enough for you?”) Even more tellingly, there’s a scene in which young Jack, defiant in the face of one of his father’s Old Testament furies, says, “It’s your house. You can kick me out whenever you want.” And then, “You’d like to kill me.”
Read the full review at Reason.