Terrence Malick’s latest poetic opus asks the big questions, and Malick offers his best guess what the answers might be in “The Tree of Life,” a movie that dares to place a family tragedy in the context of the entire existence of the universe. Malick has been pointing toward this moment for most of his career, ever since the problems of three people in “Days of Heaven” (1978) didn’t amount to a hill of beans, not compared to the biblical wrath of nature. In “The Thin Red Line” (1998), the battle for Guadalcanal was offset by the natural beauty of the island, and the dispassionate observation of the native peoples, wondering who the hell these crazy soldiers were, killing each other over a piece of “property,” as Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welsh so adeptly put it in that film.
"The Tree of Life" opens with an on-screen passage from the Book of Job that alludes to the Creation. The story of the much put-upon Job is a good reference point for the film and its primary male characters, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn plays him as an adult, Hunter McCracken as a young boy), and Jack’s father (Brad Pitt). Most of the dialogue in the film comes from voice over, as the characters comment and reflect upon their lives. At one point, Jack pleads, “I want to know what you are.... I want to see what you see.” Is he asking this of his dad, or of the Heavenly Father? Either way, it works. Later, having carefully observed his own father’s behavior, he asks “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” and, “who are we to you?” Again, the questions could be asked of God just as easily as of Jack’s stern father.
Malick’s idea of what those answers might be is made clear through a nearly 30-minute detour near the beginning of the film, depicting the Big Bang and early development of Earth. This sequence, developed in collaboration with special effects master Douglas Trumbull (“2001,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) is visually stunning. Meteors and the destruction of the dinosaurs make the case that our pitiful existence is small potatoes when placed in the context of universal time and space.
But then again, I think Malick finds this both humbling and ennobling at once. The camera, always swishing back and forth as if showing us half-remembered experiences from long ago, finds beauty in a newborn baby’s delicate foot, the steel cathedrals of Houston, sparklers on the Fourth of July, zipping through a house with childlike abandon, back-alley chases and dusk in small-town Texas, when the streets are lit by the porch lights and lamps of prairie homes. We are neither more important than, yet just as important as, the cataclysmic events and forces of nature that shape our world. If “The Tree of Life” asks the Big Question about what our role in the cosmos is, I have a feeling that Malick thinks God’s answer might be “I love all things equally.”