Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life opens with a rapturous flow of images and music. Disembodied voices ask questions of God while galaxies burn on the edge of the cosmos and babies are born to joyful parents. Volcanoes erupt, the Earth cools, dinosaurs frolic in the woods, and waterfalls cascade every which way. It’s gorgeous to look at and hear, but one quickly starts to lose patience with (to borrow a phrase from Elvis Costello) all this useless beauty. For while Malick sets out to address the certified Big Philosophical Questions — Why are we here? Why is there evil in the world? What happens next? — his answers are secondhand and trite. As a longtime admirer of Malick’s films, it pains me to say that The Tree of Life turns out to be a rather vapid and mush-headed piece of work.
Too bad, because within Malick’s immense crystal cathedral there’s a tense, observant family drama struggling to get out. Set in Waco, Texas, during the Fifties, the story shows a gruff patriarch (Brad Pitt), disappointed in his hopes for a music career, subjecting his young sons to a borderline abusive regime of homegrown discipline. He’s not the Great Santini, but there are times when his strictures are closer to arbitrary cruelty than parenting, seemingly designed to generate seething resentment in his family. He is counterbalanced somewhat by a mother (Jessica Chastain) whose glowing skin would send Vermeer running for his painting gear, and whose supply of forgiveness seems inexhaustible. Only once does she get angry enough to slap at her husband, but this upswell of raw emotion quickly disperses and she resumes her radiance duties.
The Tree of Life is obviously a personal film: the setting matches Malick’s own background, and the flow of images and memories add up to a long reverie sparked by the death of one of the brothers later in life. (The now-adult survivor, played by Sean Penn, spends a lot of time looking depressed in a landscape of corporate towers — Penn’s formidable acting chops, sad to say, are never put to use.) But it’s personal in the sense of being insular and uncommunicative: Malick is using certain images in a very systematic way, but the plan remains locked in the director’s head, and the film’s lassitude doesn’t offer much incentive to puzzle it out.
Stray scenes remind us that Malick’s visual sense was once wedded to artistic toughness. There’s a moment in which the father, sitting at his piano, starts playing counterpoint to the younger brother’s guitar practice, while the excluded older boy stews with resentment in the backyard, too angry to let himself enjoy the music in the air. Late in the film, the same boy flirts with bad seed behavior, slipping into a neighbor’s house and pawing through her lingerie. Nascent lust quickly turns to guilt, however, and the boy’s trophy — one of the woman’s nightgowns — is surrendered to the river for yet another Hallmark greeting-card shot. In The Tree of Life, even the nastiness looks pretty.
Part of the problem is that Malick’s intent is clearly theological, and The Tree of Life will only work well for viewers who share his religious views. If you are sympathetic to the story of Job (referenced throughout the film) as a metaphor for facing life’s trials while never losing sight of the beauties of creation, then you may well find The Tree of Life an exalted experience. As for me, I find it an illustration of a primitive deity’s arbitrary cruelty — God and Satan get into a pissing match, and lucky Job gets to catch the shower — and Malick’s grand summing up is banality on a galactic scale. Life is full of pain and struggle, he says, but check out these cosmic gas clouds — don’t they put it all in perspective?
No, actually, they don’t. And after two-plus hours of a film stuffed with visual splendors but starved of intellectual and emotional content, I found Malick’s vision of the afterlife — an immense tidal flat populated with family members at all stages of their lives — pretty goofy. Do they have to spend eternity without even a dry place to sit down? My first thought was that Malick was making his own version of 8 1/2, but The Tree of Life doesn’t add up to that much. At best it’s a fraction of Fellini, and from the director of Badlands and Days of Heaven, I was hoping for a lot more.