The Tree of Life, honored earlier this year with the Palme d'Or, immediately inaugurates the first of two theological matrices that will guide the picture's historically and perspectivally fluid narrative: the suffering of the righteous. Malick begins by identifying The Tree of Life's maternal heroine, Jessica Chastain, as a guiltless Job-figure, who experiences the loss of her middle son R.L. (Laramie Eppler) at age nineteen. Chastain's voice-over and Malick's reproduction of her childhood point-of-view, in externalized, elliptical form, accordingly highlights the female lead's subjectivity from the start, though Malick will quickly replace hers with that of her eldest son Jack, played in childhood by Hunter McCracken as an adult by Sean Penn; in so doing, Malick extends the shifting narrational strategies of both The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). Jack, by comparison, is presented as embodying the second of the work's overarching theological concerns: the struggle between "the way of nature" and "the way of grace." Unlike his essentially sainted mother, who helps to reveal the latter path to the young man, Jack favors the selfish pursuit of 'nature' in the image of his fear-inducing father (Brad Pitt). Indeed, Pitt's temperamental, capricious and on occasion violent patriarch provides a second source of the familial trauma that Chastain quietly suffers and which Penn brings with him into angst-laden adulthood.
Jack's glass-and-steal present day provides The Tree of Life with a point of temporal departure for the picture's visually and auditorially disjunctive exploration of the former's childhood subjectivity. Commensurate with the interior, Proustian register of Malick's narrative, The Tree of Life is comprised almost entirely of snapshot sound and image details gleaned from the life of the Waco, Texas family, with Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography attuned to the texture of the silk curtains covering R.L.'s prepubescent face and a sudden swarm of blackbirds filling the twilit sky. Malick and Lubezki's camera frequently mobilizes, pushing through the tall Texas grass just as Malick's camera once glided through the Virginia low country and down the Guadalcanal hillside. Rather than the "contact" of the former or the combat of the latter, the experience that Malick registers in The Tree of Life is that of the boys' childhood, however, whether it is the idyllic summer afternoons spent chasing Chastain with a lizard or a garden hose, roughhousing on the front lawn or coiling in fear in the presence of Pitt's disciplinarian father. Malick's jagged, elliptical cutting on these latter occasions, it bears noting, serves to amplify the boys' dread with the film's jump editing proving as unpredictable (though frequent) as Pitt's flights of rage.
Indeed, it is in Malick's articulation of subjective experience, which is to say in his impressionism that the director once again proves himself a master of narrative cinematic practice. Malick's film language is as always singular and immediately recognizable as his own, even if it has never been quite this fragmentary. There is, to be sure, a degree of mystery in Malick's pairing of images at times - though in others, the thematic echoes that obtain provide obvious justifications - with the director's strategies more intuitive than not on the micro level. With respect to the images specifically, there is understandably a high degree of unevenness, whether on the one hand it is the director's incantatory depictions of the natural world (here, as always, the director favors low-angles of towering deciduous trees), or the advertising visual ethos on the other, in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, which emerges in the post-modern urban present and in the picture's creation of a spiritual plane, marked by sweeping salt-flats and endless beaches. Malick seems most susceptible to visual cliché when Penn's Jack appears on screen.
Though The Tree of Life's "foundation of the world" passage draws on a no less recognizable set of graphic sources, from high-resolution NASA photography and IMAX nature filmmaking to Robert Zemeckis's Contact (1997) wormholes, the sequence, with its separation of light and dark, unthinkably luminous clouds of gas and blazing lava - and of course its dinosaurs; Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993) offers another context - overwhelms with its visual beauty. (In this latter respect, Nathaniel Dorsky provides another unexpected point-of-contact.) Malick accordingly inscribes God's response in the Book of Job - the director's intrinsic transcendentalism meshes nicely with the maker's Biblical reply - in a manner that if anything does justice to this loftiest of sources. The Tree of Life likewise presents Job's restoration - which is to say, Chastain's - in the film's concluding spiritual reunion, where Jack's pursuit of grace additionally crystallizes (with great depth of feeling) in his forgiveness of his father. Here, Malick's first effort at autobiography seems to present the artist's most confessional moment. In this as in so many other ways, The Tree of Life absolutely abounds with grace.