Unlike Venice/Venice, Terrence Malick's avant-garde drama The Tree of Life doesn't negate theism per se -- indeed, by opening with a passage from the Book of Job, which quotes God ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth...when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"), Malick vaguely affirms the possibility of a higher power behind the galactic quilt. But like Stanley Kubrick (to whose 2001 this film withstands comparison), Malick does perceive the concept of a creator as basically incomprehensible to human minds -- a faceless, impersonal force behind the void. As an extension of this paradigm, the writer-director spends most of his time and energy contemplating the differential between icy cosmic ontology and the warmth of personal interaction.
To establish this contrast, the film initially hits us with a psychedelic compendium of time, space, and the universe -- from the creation of the Earth to the evolution of life from a cellular level onward to the meteor that briefly annihilated all Paleolithic life. Malick poetically crisscrosses all of this with the deeply subjective experiences of one Texan man, Jack O'Brien (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken and as an adult by Sean Penn). In the process, the filmmaker achieves real profundity -- sustained and courageous pontifications on the nature and meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence. The juxtaposition of the cosmic and the personal spheres also sets up an effective tonal contrast -- whereas the space sequences give us nothing to hang onto emotionally, Malick films many of Jack's experiences in soft focus, with first-person camera and tight close-ups, and gently cascading music on the soundtrack.
To call these onscreen events -- conception, birth, napping in a mother's lap, first steps, etc. -- "moving" would be a colossal understatement. They are also somewhat sad, as our memories of the cosmic prologue continually drive home indications of the transience and long-term ineffectuality of these lives. Whenever these devout characters speak to God (which happens on several occasions), a vein of nagging irony emerges, as an affirmation of the characters' own inconsequentiality in the scheme of things, and man's self-deluded need to believe that his problems and concerns are central to whatever force brought him here. Malick implies, for example, that Mrs. O'Brien's (Jessica Chastain) mourning of a son's death may not matter one iota on a cosmic scale, though it seems earth-shaking to the woman experiencing it.
That poignancy colors virtually all of the events that take place in the middle passages of the film, as Malick begins to strategically pull us into the emotional core of the lives on display. We get protracted glimpses of the dynamics of the O'Brien family during the 1950s and '60s, as preadolescent Jack grapples with his conflicted feelings toward his disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt -- an unsuccessful pianist and inventor-turned-engineer with a slightly stilted ability to give affection to his three sons. Despite the gossamery, episodic narrative, these passages are far more conventional than the metaphysical material that preceded them; they also represent some of the finest work that Malick has ever done. There is real magic in the delicacy of his observations about family behavior and interactions with one another, a dysfunctional father's psychological and emotional impact on his sons, and the main character's need to work through unresolved filial emotions, as young Jack wrestles with resentment toward his dad. For instance, only needs to show us Mr. O'Brien lying on his back beneath a jacked-up car and tinkering with it, and Jack eyeing the crank, to imply the boy's desire to kill his father -- it isn't necessary for the child to travel one step farther by lowering the vehicle.
Malick also scatters stunning, pointed visual metaphors throughout the Texas sequences that expressionistically heighten our sense of what is occurring inside of Jack -- as with an allegorical glimpse of a giant (presumably meant to symbolize Pitt who corners the youngster inside of an attic and forces him to ride around in circles on a bicycle. Up to a point, the movie's attempts to connect the metaphysical with the personal feel astonishing on all levels.
If the film disappoints, it does so only in the final 20 minutes. One feels slightly short-changed by Malick's unwillingness to go into depth about how adult Jack ultimately manages to resolve his inner conflicts toward his family. In lieu of giving us concrete insights into this psycho-emotional process, the film attempts to bring Jack to a state of grace allegorically, with additional trippy visual metaphors (throngs of characters walking hand in hand on a deserted beach, the dilapidated remnants of a door, a closing image of a bridge) that seem far too abstruse and dissociated from the reality of the central character's life to really succeed. This is unfortunate, for it makes the epilogue feel as impenetrable as the preceding material was commendably ambitious and stunning to behold.