The Tree of Life 2011 (139 minutes) written and directed by Terence Malick.
We start out with Job, in the singular, so we know we are not in for an easy ride, especially because the opening Scriptural quote has God browbeating that stiff-necked citizen ‘out of the whirlwind.’
‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’
Sorry, never going to measure up to that one, Dad—excuse me—‘Father.’
A Western Union telegram evidently announces the death of one of the three sons, at age nineteen, without further information.
We are told at outset ‘you have nature and you have grace,’ with maternal grace, the lovely Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) who accepteth all and abideth, and sometimes speaketh in a voice-under, and occasionally flieth, willy-nilly, in air, contending with nature, or perhaps more properly here, paternal human nature, in the very high-and-tight person of one Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), which seeketh only itself to please (with apologies to William Blake).
By and by, Sean Penn turns up as Jack, the eldest son, in blighted middle age, evidently an architect, lost in a grand and vast Texas urban architectural empyrean. Like his mother, Jack also speaketh single words and phrases in voice-unders.
There is lots of texture and architecture. Lots and lots. And then some.
There is also an undulating tangerine dream that appears at the beginning and at intervals throughout. This turns out not to be Georgia O’Keefeesque representations in light of our portal of entry into this world, but the product of a 1960’s op-art light construct.
David Denby, writing for The Talk of the Town in the June 27  issue of The New Yorker, identified these images which he purports to have confounded critics as light artist Thomas Wilfred’s ‘Opus 161’ (1965-6). This artwork is a lumia (not labia) ‘composition’ which ‘employed reflective mirrors, hand-painted glass disks, and bent pieces of metal—all housed in a screened wooden cabinet…to transform beams of light produced by a series of lamps and lenses.’
Back up the Tree, we pick our way through leafy branches to the jazzed-up Koyaanisqatsi part of the story: more fiery volcanic and fleshy vulvar orange; planetary orbs and massive, colliding crescendos of sea.
A Drastic Park dinosaur skips by.
One gets the sense that man is the measure. These kaleidoscopic images are at the very heart of what man’s head-scratching rational self cannot conceive as more than a fiercely chaotic universe.
And then we are back in the golden glow of a 1950s childhood summer on which the back screen door slams shut for the last time after Father’s plant closes and the family has to get the heck out of Waco (or Smithville, where the film was shot). We watch the Tree of Life in the familiar yard of childhood grow smaller in the rear window of the departing family station wagon.
Mr. O is not a bad guy, really. He comes from hardscrabble; he helped win the war, and he works hard to provide the best for his boys. He is an inventor with big dreams and a type-A personality, but he is a Little Guy and knows it.
His frustration is framed by the fact that he is a church organist in small town Texas in the 1950s who really could and would prefer to play Brahms and Mahler. No matter how many times Mr. O makes those organ pipes come to Jesus, he will never be satisfied that he could not have done it better that sixty-fifth-plus-one more time. This is the main thing he wanted to impress upon his boys.
Sean Penn’s middle-aged Jack then reappears in a suit, crossing the blasted heath of his blighted spiritual life in cinematography so mannered that it could be a super-slick corporate advertisement for an insurance or financial planning entity, if someone slapped a logo on it.
Where the blazes is all this going?
We learn nothing more, beyond the age of about twelve or thirteen, of the boy in the telegram. He is an apparently minor character in the story we are told, though his death at age nineteen warps the family dynamic and each family member forever beyond redemption.
Was this death caused by a military misadventure, or a highway accident? Overdose? Happenstance tragedy? We are none the wiser. One must take it on faith that this boy's untimely death eternally damned this family. Unfortunately, faith is the one resource in precious short supply here.
What’s missing in all this colossal grandeur of colliding worlds and dying-Gaul lapsed faith is a sense of the wonder in a single drop of water.