The thin thread of a story begins with the death of one of the three O'Brien sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. Haunting and dreamlike in almost every glorious scene, The Tree of Life focuses primarily on Jack, the oldest O'Brien son, who becomes an architect in the contemporary world's impersonal glass and concrete towers. As a boy, Jack warily watches every movement of his authoritarian father and resents his tough-minded guidance as deeply as he embraces his mother's unconditional love. Malick explicitly sets up this opposition as one between grace and nature.
As Mr. O'Brien, Brad Pitt brings a stillness and intensity to his character, conveying a love and struggle encased in a misguided rigidity. As his wife, newcomer Jessica Chastain is lightness and loveliness, and the children have an unselfconscious appeal as well. As the adult Jack, Sean Penn's face and body posture speak volumes about his suppressed anger and alienation and his inner battle to reclaim a measure of innocence. The performances by all the actors perfectly suit Malick's design—controlled and haunting.
Press notes aptly describe The Tree of Life as "like a piece of music divided into movements, or the limbs of a towering tree, tracing the evolution of a single life." In fact, it traces the evolution of all life and glories in its awe-inspiring complexity as well as its impenetrability in a fitting combination of the scientific and the spiritual, two elements too often presented as a forced dichotomy rather than a difficult unity.
At this year's Cannes Film Festival where I first saw The Tree of Life, some critics applauded while others booed. That reaction will define reaction beyond that typical Cannes moment. Those who surrender to the overwhelming sensuous experience will love Malick's pure cinema on display, as I did. Others will struggle with the elusive and allusive elements though there's little question that Malick remains true to his muse. And for that purity and creativity, he earned and to me deserved this year's top award, the Palme d'Or. At a Landmark Theatre.