Terrence Malick is a truly extraordinary and enigmatic filmmaker; over the course of the last 38 years, he has directed only five films, each one of which is widely regarded as a consummate masterpiece. The beauty and complexity of his images are almost in a league of their own. Between the sheer cinematic perfection of his work and its anti-prolific output, he is reminiscent of perhaps the cinema’s greatest auteur, the late Stanley Kubrick. His latest film is likely his best work to date (I still haven’t seen 1978′s Days of Heaven, widely regarded as his greatest achievement up until now), and it certainly feels like his most personal, while simultaneously tackling the huge metaphysical ideas of Kubrick’s own greatest work, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The Tree of Life is a staggeringly ambitious Tree of Life film that evokes not only the monumental beginnings of all existence in the universe, but also the tiny, specific details of ordinary lives; the result is a flaw but profound epic on the scale of 2001 with the emotional resonance that Kubrick’s more detached approach is often accused of lacking. It is also a film that deserves comparison to Darren Aronofsky’s extremely underrated masterpiece The Fountain (2006) in its themes of the interconnectedness of all time and space and the way in which we are all affected by forces beyond our control and understanding. It is the rare film whose flaws only make it more intriguing, since life itself is flawed and disconnected in much the same way. Above all, while comparisons can be made to other masterpieces in Malick’s own career as well as those mentioned above, this is a wonderfully unique and original film, with a style and voice unlike any I can recall.
The two central ideas of the film are stated very early on, in voice-over, by Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) as she recalls her childhood. She says that she was raised with the idea that “there are two ways through life: the way of Nature, and the way of Grace.” Nature, it was said by her father, wants to satisfy itself; it could be seen in these terms as an interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s idea of the id, the pleasure principle. Grace, on the other hand, seems to be something beyond even the super-ego, an almost Taoist way of living with acceptance of all things and faith in something greater than oneself; this way leaves no room for selfishness, and it is the source of high ideals like forgiveness and acceptance.
Throughout the film, these ideas are continually explored in often unexpected ways. During the film’s amazing Big Bang sequence, for example, we see an injured dinosaur lying on the ground. A larger, presumably predatory dinosaur comes upon it and stamps on its with one foot, holding its head down. We expect it to kill and eat the small dinosaur, but instead, it considers for a moment before moving on, though not without a final push with its foot, as if it wants to make sure the first dinosaur is down. This can be interpreted in a number of different ways, such as the idea of life’s competition against other life, but within the context of the ideas of Nature and Grace, perhaps what Malick is showing us is just that. The predatory dinosaur’s Nature is to kill and eat others, but some element of Grace within it allows it to leave this one to its own fate. It is a scene that sets the tone for a deeply spiritual film with a distinctly Christian outlook, albeit one that never feels didactic or proselytizing; for the most part, it is far too subtle and evocative for that.