After a first viewing of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the only response can be an ecstatic litany of the tiny, seemingly mundane moments that holistically create its world. A toddler gazing upon his infant brother for the first time, eyes full with wonder. That same older brother then angrily throwing his toy blocks, presumably in a fit of jealousy. Water purposely spilled on a brother’s painting. A woman’s slip stolen and sent downstream. A sudden cutaway of a burning house followed by a shot of the back of a child’s raw, singed head. A childhood home glimpsed from the back of a car driving its inhabitants away from it forever. The more one catalogues what happens, however, the more it begins to feel wrong; as though it’s somehow against the grain of the film to separate these images (and our memories of what we’ve seen onscreen) with periods. These are not staccato moments, nor are they even scenes in any traditional sense. They’re also not really even impressions—they’re too weighted with import.
Upon a second viewing of the film, one may feel the need to proselytize to others how those images, which initially seem as though they’re placed before us as a shuffled deck of cards, do indeed fit into a clear, even concise whole—a spiritual journey with clear-cause-and-effect strategies. The most radical thing about Malick’s seeming non-narrative masterwork is the profound coherence of its design. It is constructed of discrete movements—it is symphonic, sometimes held aloft on a trill, other times driven in allegro motion. We feel caught in a freeze frame—of the terror, longing, nostalgia, confusion, heartbreak, and devilry of childhood—but we’re constantly being pushed forward as though to some greater understanding about this family, or ourselves, and consequently the universe. Whether we get there is in the eye of the beholder, but regardless of whether one takes Malick’s earnest plunge into the Big Questions (you know, those insignificant matters like “Why are we here?”) as rewardingly impenetrable or as just, well, hokum, there’s no denying that the way this artist and his collaborators have evoked our world—through framing and lighting, editing, music, performance, art direction—is nothing short of miraculous: a work of almost constant rapture and simmering dread, in which every fleeting gesture seems burdened with the weight of existence. Read Michael Koresky’s article on The Tree of Life.