Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is a magisterial symphony of sprawling scope and grand vision. Like the symphonies of the masters Malick clearly admires—Berlioz, Brahms, Bach, Mozart (all of whom show up in Life)—the film is a work of passion that consumed the reclusive writer/director for many years. Like the greatest composers, Malick's ambition here is nothing less than to capture the meaning of life, to create a lasting masterpiece that probes the biggest questions and reflects upon our human struggles, using the forms of cinematic beauty rather than the words of philosophy. Few filmmakers go near the "big questions" any more. But Malick's magnificent Life could change that. It's the sort of film that could awaken a cynical generation of filmmakers to rediscover the possibilities of the form.
Eschewing traditional cinematic narrative, Life is structured in movements. The film is bookended by allegro movements—sweeping montage visions of the universe coming into being and a grandiose finale evoking what could be interpreted as a Christian eschatological climax. In the middle is the adagio section—a slower-paced, intimate observation of one Texas family in the 1950s. Though the spectacles of the beginning and end are jaw-dropping (dinosaurs, molecular reproduction, asteroids, a cosmic light show), it's the middle section that reveals the most truth. Here, in one humble corner of a universe unimaginably large and complex, the true mystery of existence is manifest: A father, mother, children, love, death, hate, forgiveness, reconciliation. Together, this micro memoir and macro meditation form nothing less than a virtuoso triumph that will be talked about, remembered, studied, and treasured for decades.
Much of Life takes place in the mind and memory of Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), an architect in Houston, as he reflects upon the formative years of his younger self (Hunter McCracken) in Waco, Texas. Aside from the show-stopping "God's eye" sequence in the film's first third—which takes us from the first nebulae and forming galaxies to the earth's origins, the dinosaurs' extinction and beyond—Life is basically a kaleidoscope assemblage of Jack's poetic remembrances, dream-like reveries, hauntings, and hopes.
Most prominent in Jack's memory is his family: Mother (Jessica Chastain), Father (Brad Pitt), and two younger brothers. Jack's parents represent the film's broader dialectic of what Mother describes as "two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace." As the stern, business-minded Mr. O'Brien, Pitt represents the way of nature, valuing a competitive, almost Machiavellian approach to life. He's big on the idea of ownership, control, and being a self-sovereign man ("You have control of your own destiny," he says). As the loving, compassionate Mrs. O'Brien, newcomer Chastain embodies the way of grace. She nurtures the kids, cares for them when dad's mad, and is quick to forgive. In parallel scenes of waking the boys up from bed—mother by playfully slipping ice cubes down the back of their pajamas; father by ripping their covers off—we see the contrast clearly.