Terrence Malick gets points for sincerity. In fact, he gets all the points for sincerity, every single one of them. He makes our most self-important filmmakers look flip and fatuous. He makes Michael Mann look like he’s doing stand-up. Next to Malick, Darren Aronofsky is Preston Sturges. In other words, Malick means it—he really means it. And he’s never meant anything more than he means Tree of Life.
Like most great filmmakers, Malick’s movies are all about the same things, and in this case they’re big things. He’s interested in death, God, the meaning of life, the origins and purpose of evil, and the human struggle to live well in a violent world. But in Tree of Life, he’s through screwing around. You want a movie about God? This time, Malick’s not giving you Guadalcanal, or Pocahontas, or the Nebraska Badlands, or the Texas Panhandle. To quote Dennis Hopper: fuck that shit. This time around Malick goes “where God lives,” as Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) puts it: he gives us the cosmos, the spinning galaxies, the dawn of time, the earth’s shifting plates and spewing volcanoes and primordial, striving ocean life. He gives us all of creation ordering and reordering itself, breaking down and building up and breaking down again in the endless cycle. He doesn’t just give us dinosaurs, for God’s sake, he gives us the death of dinosaurs, too. You want the meaning of life? Malick will show you where it began.
We also get a story—as much of a story, anyway, as Malick ever gives us, which is to say not much of a story, but at least something to hold together all the philosophical cud-chewing. We get Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, aging well), the disciplinarian dad (or “father” as he angrily insists on being called) with a fistful of stifled ambitions and a chip on his shoulder, determined to make his sons into what he feels he never was or will be. We get Mrs. O’Brien, the mom, who offers endless and mostly mute love and understanding to the three O’Brien boys, principally Jack (Hunter McCracken). Jack is a scowling, loving, trouble-making, gentle pre-adolescent whose emotions are beginning to churn like the roiling surf and bursting magma we see so much of. He breaks windows and shoots his trusting brother with a bee-bee gun and sneaks into an unlocked neighbor’s house where he paws through a lingerie drawer in confused, nameless longing. We get this family moving through their dreamy days in dreamy, late-1940s Waco, Texas, and in bits and pieces, we also get adult Jack (Sean Penn, not aging quite as well), moving through the washed-out colors of his adult life.
And of course we get whispered voiceover. Malick is the all-time league leader in whispered voiceover.
Is this movie any good? It depends on whom you ask. In his rave review, Roger Ebert compares the movie’s ambition to that of 2001, which is where you have to reach to find a movie that tried to do this much. Ebert notes that Kubrick lacked Malick’s feeling. Most people do. But it’s a useful comparison. Kubrick is among the least feeling filmmakers, I would argue, a great artist whose genius is intellectual and visual, but—unless you count terror and violence as emotions—never emotional (which for me has always explained his weakness: directing actors; most of his movies are marred by one or more simply terrible performances, and he was especially susceptible to committed hams like Kirk Douglas and Jack Nicholson; he had absolutely no eye for performance). Malick shares Kubrick’s interest in ideas (Malick reportedly came close to earning a doctorate of philosophy from Oxford University before dropping out), but at the end of the day he’s more interested in the emotions; for Malick, the ideas are just a way to make sense of our emotional lives, which are what really matter.
The trouble with sincerity is that it has less of a place in the world than it used to. There’s always some wag or cynic ready to knock it down, and no shortage of means by which to do so. Whether you’ll find Tree of Life profound or tedious depends to a large extent on how open you are to a sincere filmmaker doing his sincere best. If you simply can’t approach any of the silence and symbolic, nonlinear digressions and ominously unanswered questions with a straight face, well, then this may not be for you, because while Malick is as interested in ideas as Kubrick ever was, he doesn’t explore them with the same depth or sophistication. In Malick’s vision, the world is a nasty place, and you can follow your natural instincts, trying to dominate and build and occasionally destroy (like Mr. O’Brien), or you can choose to live your life with grace (Mrs. O’Brien). Grace, in this context, is another word for love, for kindness, for tenderness and understanding of one another. It’s a simple and beautiful idea, but some people may find it merely simple.
I’ll go this far, though: If you like movies, you should see Tree of Life. Like all of Malick’s films, it’s beautifully shot and edited. Watching it all unfurl, I was thinking less of 2001 than Baraka, another quiet, observant movie that took its time with the rhythms and chaos and beauty of nature, and tried to locate man within them. There’s little dialog in Tree of Life, and almost none that you could consider truly necessary. Whether he’s showing you a gauzy, billowing curtain or the boys wrestling on the front lawn or planets being formed from the void of space, Malick is advancing his ideas and, somehow, advancing our emotional experience with it all, and he’s doing it visually.
But the best reason to see Tree of Life is because there aren’t any other movies like it. Its scope, ambition, methods, and risk-taking are all unique, and so is Malick. That may sound like faint praise, but when you sift through the Fast and Furiouses, the Pirates of the Caribbeans and the latest slapped-together, 3D superhero nonsense, you see that’s a significant thing. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without mindless entertainment, but neither would I want to do without the occasional Terrance Malick who, if nothing else, really means it.