Some find Terrence Malick's meditative dramas a kind of cinematic religious experience. And there are those whose eyes roll whenever Malick's characters let loose with their "dude, nature is, like, so profound" philosophizing. When word out of this year's Cannes Film Festival, where The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or, indicated that Malick had included a sequence literally portraying the birth of the universe, it didn't seem as though there was reason to expect a bridge between those two perspectives.
So it's hard to describe how startling it was that The Tree of Life hit me somewhere primal, somewhere deep and resonant. It's a dizzying and ambitious vision, and on a much more fundamental level, it's about a certain connection we make between the human and the divine - and the challenge we have of separating the two.
The opening scenes set the foundation for the family at the story's center. A father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) learn that one of their sons has died. They grieve and struggle. Years later, one of their other sons, Jack (Sean Penn), is still wrestling with his past as an adult.
It's here, at the 22-minute mark, that Malick begins his cosmic-scale attempt at an answer. Stars are born; liquid earth cools; primitive life forms; dinosaurs fight for life. It's a truly WTF-level risk Malick is taking. He segues into images that make up our memories of early childhood - a frightening place in your house, the security of a mother's arms. The Tree of Life finds a continuum in the miracle of existence, from the Big Bang down to a single individual human life.
More significantly, it's an attempt to articulate a crucial moment of adult understanding. While the relationship between young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his father is at the center of the narrative, it's more complicated than that. The Tree of Life explores how a child's idea of God is connected to his perception of his father, and how jarring it is to see that father as a fallible mortal.
Pitt delivers a strong performance in a role that shifts between archetypal and unique, and it's crucial that we're able to see him in both contexts. Malick captures Jack's rebellious acts as something akin to a crisis of faith.
It's easy to understand how Malick's approach to those ideas can seem grandiose and off-putting. But The Tree of Life never fails to keep powerful human emotions at its center. If the film's climax feels as though it's reaching for profundity, it's because Malick is finding a concrete visual metaphor for a man trying to accept grace on new terms.
You may resist because of your own philosophy; you may resist because of the way Malick articulates his. But for others, The Tree of Life may be nothing less than soul-stirring.