That probably seems like a very bold statement, but it's the closest thing that the film can be compared to. It's also meant to be both high praise and a warning to anyone who decides to see it: this is not an easy film to watch. Don't be fooled by the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn: this is a film that intends to make you think, and does so by eschewing conventional narrative in favor of impressionist philosophizing.
The very loose plot of the film involves the O'Briens, a west Texas family in the 1950s. Or, perhaps more accurately, oldest son Jack's (Sean Penn in the present, Hunter McCracken in the past) reflection on growing up under the influence of his tough-as-nails father (Brad Pitt) and his gentle, free-spirit mother (Jessica Chastain). Throughout the film, Jack is seen growing up, trying to resist becoming his father while often being at odds with his mother. That's about all that can be said in terms of plot, as not much actually happens in terms of traditional three-act plot structure. Robots Go Smash, Volume 3 this is not.
What the film is, however, is an experience, much like the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey or the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Malick's most prevalent career theme is nature, and in all honesty nature is the true star of any of his films. The Tree of Life, though, is his ultimate philosophical treatise on nature, in particular on the issue of Nature vs. Grace. To accomplish this, in addition to the "main narrative," we're treated to a lengthy interlude detailing a history of life up to this point, starting with the Big Bang and moving forward through the formation of the solar system, the first cells, dinosaurs, and finally humanity (Creationists, you might want to skip this one) and some truly gorgeous and awe-inspiring images from brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk.
The "main narrative" presents the main argument of Nature vs. Grace through the O'Brien parents, with their children representing us as the human race: young, impressionable, and the results of the union of these forces of creation. Malick couldn't have chosen a better actor than Brad Pitt to stand-in as Nature. Nature, like Pitt, is beautiful, well-meaning, and possessing of a love that can often be impossible to decipher. But Nature is cold and harsh as well, for death, violence, survival instinct, and destruction are inherent values of Nature. Nature has little regard for what we as humans want; it provides, but if we abuse it, it will not show mercy. Pitt captures these qualities magnificently, and Malick further demonstrates the unfeeling qualities of Nature through his "creation montage," a universe and planet born of violent forces that, despite being filled with incredible beauty, never lost its destructive qualities.
That beauty is provided through Grace, the merciful, warm, kind force that allows us to carry on and feel compassion for one another. Again, Malick made a terrific decision in casting Jessica Chastain in this role: her skin is soft and radiant, with a gentle smile and glowing eyes full of hope and passion. She's also, well, gracefully free-spirited, exemplified by her slow swaying wherever she goes. Grace, it seems, is what provides Nature with its beauty, the force that prevents us from destroying ourselves and gives us our humanity. Where Nature tears us down, Grace builds us back up, protecting our souls from the annihilation-seeking forces that are constantly battering us and our world.
Malick posits that inside each of us is Nature and Grace, and the two forces are both complimentary and confrontational. This is the internal conflict of every human being: neither Nature nor Grace can completely win us over, but the advantage can be tipped one way or another. With Jack as the surrogate for the human race, this is our existential qualm: how do we balance the Nature and the Grace within us? This is what The Tree of Life is all about.
I'm sorry if this seems more like a Philosophy 101 analysis of the film instead of a traditional review, but The Tree of Life is a film that defies traditional reviews. You can't really look at it as an entertainment or a narrative, because that's not what Malick intended it to be. What it is is a cinematic thinkpiece, a film that's meant to challenge you and explore the notions of what make this universe possible. I mean this as a clear and important warning, not as a sleight, but nine out of ten of you reading this will be bored to tears by this film, and I absolutely do not recommend it to you nine. It's a film that, even if you go in with as open a mind as possible, will push you (it took me the entire first hour before I settled into it). If you feel bold enough to tackle this film, I hope it will prove to be as rewarding for you as it was for me. If not, there's nothing wrong with it; Malick clearly didn't make this film for everyone, and it's clear from the first frame that he's not out to make hundreds of millions of dollars off of it. I will say that if you enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey, you should be able to enjoy The Tree of Life as well.
**My screening only had one walkout, which was impressive to me. Outside the theater after the show, I heard one group of people griping about the film, and several others stating that they didn't understand, but they all stuck through it and didn't demand refunds. So good for them on that point.**
***If you want to know what I would grade this film, I would give it an A. The only thing keeping it from being an A+ was the fact that Sean Penn was a really distracting presence; I really wish Malick had cast an unknown to play the adult Jack. And really, a lot of the adult Jack portions of the film were odd and felt out-of-place.***