We might leave our childhood, but it never leaves us. It follows us and haunts us, presenting no scope for absolution. And it is this haunting that auteur Terrence Mallick presents with a camera that is as discerningly close to his characters as it is detached from the entire human condition when it looks at life and creation in both microscopic and macroscopic visions.
Through a series of hallucinations, Jack (Sean Penn) recollects his childhood of growing up in a small town and a younger brother he was close to and who died when he was still young. Through the agony of Jack, the film travels back in time, into the childhood of planet earth itself, right from its creation, infancy to the time when it became the `Tree of Life`.
For a film of just over two hours, this has the ambitions of one that never ends. In its short span, it tries to encompass everything -- love, bliss, agony, loss, pain, ambition, control, origin of earth, life, violence, death... to create a film that is as much grounded as it is a fantasy.
Terrance Malick is a man in control of his medium. He has demonstrated his artistry in films selectively made, it seems, only when he has something to say, leading once to a gap of two decades in his career. And here, in The Tree of Life you see Malick at the helm of his craft so far. Only a man in total awareness of the grammar of cinema can attempt to bend them or even try and create something more as he does here.
Yet, the film can also be blamed for indulgence with the main flaw being that it uses words far too many. That might seem a strange accusation for a film that has very few dialogues anyways. But when something is in short supply, whatever is presented acquires greater significance.
Malick tries his hands at explanation and resolution, using religion and the Book of Job and that is where he falters.
Indeed, the film can be called a modern interpretation of the Book of Job with Job`s character being played by Jack, who like Job, has theological discussions albeit with himself on the nature of life, his suffering and his anger with god for making him suffer.
Thus, if you are the religious kind, or if one of your overarching concerns is why bad things happen to good people, this is a film custom-made for you. Indeed, in the galactic scenes, or of the earth`s history that Malick presents, you might even find god`s response to your queries like Job does at the end of his trials.
Cinematically though, his explanations using words, feel like sore notes in an otherwise masterful composition, unnecessary lines and colours in a Van Gogh painting. Malick didn`t need to say it, when he is literally showing it. Remove that, and you have perhaps one of the most perfect films.
Audiences going in to watch Brad Pitt and Sean Penn need to be wary. Pitt is perfect and Penn is agonisingly good in his small role. But the film is not about them. It is about life.