Mother and Father make the child. Not God, not the universe. those two bohemoths run through everything. There has always been a drift in Malick’s films, an ebb and flow between man and nature, between creation and destruction. The Tree of Life is no exception. Minutes and then hours creep by, gently imparting a feeling or a memory here, a kick or nudge of recognition there.
The biggest (and most obvious) conflict here is between the two parents. Mother espouses a to enjoy life you must love philosophy whilst Father hard noses his kids with his own theories on how the good rarely succeed. Brad Pitt sticks his jaw out and plays the father with wounded pride and an unknowable quality. It’s unclear why a man with three kids, a loving wife, decent house and an unsullied America to live in would be so upset with his lot. There is a suggestion that he may be a good man being unfair on his kids on purpose to prepare them for the much tougher world that will follow. He imparts his love of music to them and demands affection. Pitt has never been better playing this modern Job (a constantly revisited theme).
We learn that one son has been killed (probably in combat) and both Father and Mother blame themselves. Jumping forward through time we find Sean Penn, playing one son still hurting from the loss of his brother. He lives in a hard, expensive, glass apartment that screams fiscal success. He is his father’s son, not surprised to find himself rich but unfulfilled. He lights a tea light for his brother then the universe explodes.
Twenty minutes of the birth of all follow, planet’s form, nebulae swirl, sea’s boil and life emerges. Classical music streams from the speakers and we feel mans place in the universe. The music (which father loves) underpins the link between this sequence and the soul that Pitt is unwillingly trying to remove from his sons. It’s a brave attempt to impart ideas into a film packed full of them and it mostly succeeds.
More fifties childhood memories follow but by now the narrative is set. We see the older son (destined to be Sean Penn) follow his father to the point of almost becoming him whilst the doomed middle son follows his mother into love.
Sean Penn then re-appears and meets everyone (past and present) on a beac h for a period of closure. This is borderline mawkish and nearly derails the film, sending it to a syrupy demise. A scene where Penn can’t walk through a doorway on the beach is hopelessly pretentious. Fortunately what’s come before drags you to the sunflowers at the close and imparts it’s message of precious memories, tough decisions and unconditional love. This tree is one that will grow and grow, deserving it’s pace alongside 2001, Solaris and Koyaanisqatsi. Films that spring to mind all the way through this opus.