At its heart, that’s the question asked by The Tree of Life. Is this life amazing, singular, and fantastic? Or is it just something that happens naturally and simply a case of “what you see is what you get”? Again, coming from Terrence Malick, it turns out the answer doesn’t matter. There’s really no answer as you’re expected to decide for yourself. And whatever you choose, the film wants you to know that even the mundane is wonderful, and the wonderful is mundane. So whatever the case may be, beauty is beauty, and lack of beauty is just lack of beauty. Perhaps. Or maybe it’s something totally different. That’s the magic of a good story, you never know for sure.
While pondering all this, you get treated to remarkable scenes backed by masterful acting and a super-appropriate soundtrack. As we follow the O’Brien family’s trials and tribulations, we also experience a lot of their happiness. Human technology and nature intertwine as the O’Briens laugh, fight, cry, and simply face the reality of their time, for example racial tensions among blacks and whites in the south and the prospect of failing at business despite having brilliant business plans.
By the way, we only “know” they’re the O’Briens thanks to the credits, as the family name is never mentioned in the movie proper.
Brad Pitt does Mr. O’Brien with great aplomb, utilizing his sense of drama to the max. One minute he’s loving and funny, the next stern and almost violent as he tries to educate slash dominate the children.
It’s a sort of perpetual summer afternoon in this reality the O’Briens inhabit. In addition to lush greenery we get strong sunsets and the usual Malick light shafts through a window. With dust particles, of course. You’ll need a good 4K screen to notice these details properly.
Jessica Chastain delivers a memorable performance as Mrs. O’Brien. Unlike her husband and his love affair with human technology (he’s implied to be a former NASA engineer), Mrs. O’Brien feels at home with nature, turning into an almost literal tree hugger. But there’s nothing weird or creepy about it, as The Tree of Life apparently wants to let us know technology and nature deserve our equal love as they’re one and the same in the end. Both adult O’Briens express admiration for aspects of the universe, with the mother clearly on the side of nature.
All the while the two sons in the household just try to have fun and do what kids do. And so we conclude that very few filmmakers can make running through water seem like so much joy as does Terrence Malick.
Water, as it often does, plays a central part in the movie’s philosophy. It stands for birth, maturation, and eventually death. And also life. And probably other things you may decide it stands for, interpretation is what movies like The Tree of Life were made for.