If Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey had one of the biggest jump cuts in the history of time spanning some three million years, Terrence Malick, who comes up with a spiritual companion piece to the epic sci-fi film, gives the biggest flashback in the history of time spanning over 13.75 billion years — and tells us the story of life from the very beginning.
Malick's film, his most abstract till date, is certainly not for everyone, if comments from the bored folk at PVR are any indication. It's strictly for Malick fans and those who love pure cinema at its gloriously indulgent best. It isn't difficult to understand if you patiently surrender to its audacity and scale to tell a story that's as macro as it gets at one level and yet microscopically intimate and personal at another.
The auteur achieves this by interrupting the story of a family dealing with loss over a period of time with the story of the creation of the universe itself to understand who we are and the way of life as it has been over billions of years. As the mother observes in the opening lines of the film: “There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You choose which one to follow.”
Malick takes us to the way of life of the dinosaur to suggest that the way of grace existed even back then when a predator stamps on the face of a little injured dinosaur and changes its mind looking at the plight of the wounded.
Back in the world as we know it, we see the way of nature manifested through the tough father (Brad Pitt) and the way of grace epitomised by the mother (Jessica Chastain) as the O'Briens raise their three kids in the fifties in a town called Waco in Texas. The triumph of Tree of Life lies in its ability to connect with our personal stories.
From all that the kids learn growing up, we try to understand ourselves and everything we learnt — through religion, upbringing and textbooks — and the choices we make. It's a deeply meditative film on existence, a prayer of thanksgiving and a paean to motherhood.
According to Malick, God is a woman. And the woman is God because she creates, she introduces the child to the way of grace. And Man is the child because he takes time to learn and takes to the way of nature quite early on. Which is why the father repents his actions way later in the film, while the child picks up the way of nature as early as adolescence when he is consumed by lust and experiments with violence.
The conflict between the way of nature and grace is played out through the eldest son dealing with the loss of his brother. The film does not tell us why he died and we can only speculate given the themes of Malick's previous films that he died at war or any possible gun-related incident, given how he is raised. (While the father teaches him to fight, the boy takes to guns early on.)
Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography will haunt you for long as Malick stamps his signature through all his favourite shots to constantly remind you of the intricate thread that connects his films — that man is just another form of life in the vast expanse of infinite creation as the camera often frames him against the bright light above or the deep blue ocean. The special effects used to portray the creation of the universe, apparently, were done the good old way through chemicals at the laboratory and were not computer generated. Which is probably another reason the film reminds you of Kubrick's masterpiece on the evolution of the human race over time.
Treat this film as you would treat a visit to the temple. Go with an empty cup and an open mind. Else, just skip and don't ruin it for those who want to pay attention to the God in Malick's detail.
Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Bradd Pitt, Jessica Chastain
Storyline: A family copes with loss and remembers times spent together
Bottomline: Malick digs deep into the DNA of man and life of all creation, a philosopher's take on Darwin's theory of evolution
This story was corrected on July 31. It had referred to the death of "the eldest son". It was the middle son who died.