Each Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, there’s an extraordinary prayer read in synagogue. Called the “Unetanneh Tokef,” it evokes the awesome power of judgment day, extolling God’s capacity for punishment, his propensity for mercy and man’s insignificance in the face of it all.
I thought of the third part of that prayer while watching The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s ambitious, meditative stab at codifying the cosmos. It gets close to the essence of the reclusive auteur’s much-anticipated new picture: “A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust. At risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”
In paralleling the origins of the universe with flashes from the everyday 1950s childhood of a young boy from Waco, Texas, Malick’s film captures the ethereal nature of life. Beginning with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs and cycling through Jack O’Brien’s (Sean Penn) memories of his youth — of ballgames on the lawn during muggy summer nights, his younger brother’s warm gaze, contentious family dinners and the first stirrings of sexual feelings — Malick offers one man’s story writ large and small.
Sparkling galaxies, a home submerged in flooded waters and complex symbols of purity, regret and inner peace converge with a deep, reflective breath. The stirring notes of Bedrich Smeltana’s “Moldau” enhance the operatic scope, while the golden haze (enhanced by child’s eye view close-ups) through which the filmmaker views the Texas scenes adds heft to even the most superficially mundane moments. These touches never let us forget the significance of what we are witnessing: the collective experience that comprises Jack, the particular, private universe that defines this unhappy man working at an impersonal cubicle, adrift in a sea of modernity.
“Understand that you are another world in miniature and that you are the sun, moon and also the stars,” said the early Christian scholar Origen, and the genius of Malick’s work here is the ease with which he molds Jack’s world with all of our worlds. This is a film at once about how small and insignificant we are when framed against the vastness of all that unfolds outside our periphery and about just how much each of us matters, how the ways our past converges on our present, and the love we bring into the world, indelibly impact the cosmic order of things.
That duality is the lifeblood of The Tree of Life, the core of Malick’s exceedingly brave attempt to make a movie about the biggest, greatest story of all. While certain human touches resonate — for example, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain give clear-eyed, memorable performances as Jack’s lost, haunted parents — the picture is ultimately less driven by its own character drama than by the sort of Rorschach test it offers viewers.
The degree to which you are engaged by Jack’s story matters less than the self-reflection it inspires. Malick offers a blueprint for stepping back and taking stock of things, for considering your own place amid all that’s come before and all that’s yet to be. While that doesn’t always make for the most immersive viewing experience, it’s one that stays with you, getting you thinking about the deepest recesses of space, the farthest reaches of time and what it all means.
The Upside: This is a brave movie that’s unafraid of grand, cosmic ideas.
The Downside: The film leaves its greatest impact in the hours and days after you see it. In experiencing the movie, the story of Terrence Malick’s protagonist is far less resonant than your own.
On the Side: The film, delayed and heavily anticipated, won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Unsurprisingly, the reclusive Malick didn’t show up.