Tree of Life is loaded with concepts. It's also visually stunning, Malick remains atop the field, conceiving and executing shots with genius-level precision. So what keeps the door barred on the "modern masterpiece" label? The lack of cohesion and the failure to connect. As such, Tree of Life is a flawed though intensely interesting experience at the theater. This could be a parable portraying The Garden of Eden, innocence lost, the Book of Job, or possibly even a creation metaphor. It could be anything, or it could be nothing, and that's where the clarity issue must be considered.
Early on in Tree of Life the basic framework for the piece is established. It's nature vs. grace, conflict vs. cooperation, creation vs. destruction. Tree of Life asks all the big questions, which means it really only asks one question over and over. Why? Why do we die? Why are we here? Why should we be good to each other? Why do parents lie? The questions come furiously, generally presented in minute-long vignettes, and Tree of Life at times feels like about 150 majestic postcards in a row. Some are spoken word, some feature voiceover, and some show off incredible imagery. There's a twenty minute portion of Tree of Life where Malick simply breaks down all of creation, from the beginning of time, including the dinosaurs and the "ecosystem killing" meteor. And yes, Malick still adores his shots of roiling water, fully realized soft blue chaos. These are not shots that your average director could pull off with such style, and the ambition of Tree of Life is sweeping and robust.
The main characters of Tree of Life are a family living in Waco, Texas. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain) have three young sons. They also have parenting styles which are reflective of the central themes. Mrs. O'Brien is all harmony and grace. She believes in loving everything, she's willing to take abuse, she wants to please. Mr. O'Brien is nature, survival of the fittest. He believes in never quitting, seeks to please himself, and he wants to dole out abuse. They each educate and raise the children in their manner, and neither is completely effective. Tree of Life strives to point out that balance of force is required, but that nothing can truly insulate you from the hard lessons of life. Simply loving without discipline doesn't get you anywhere, nor does working tirelessly without passion. The kids are strands of each of these arguments. The older one is just like his father, a scrapper, while the younger boy is sweetness and light, the spitting image of his mother. The third son represents a flaw with the film, as he's not well established. However, the conundrum of this complaint is that this might very well be a stylistic choice given the events that transpire. We simply can't know what we don't know, which of course Malick is fully aware of.
The O'Briens, for all their faith and coping techniques, keep sliding, inch by inch, degree by degree, toward the brink and a crisis of faith. The children are followed from birth to early teens, first being taught objective concepts, here is how you read, here is how you you kiss, before the parents make the transition to subjective human frameworks like boundaries, respect, and fear, items that only exist as a shared human consciousness. The children are versed in the world, but they start to see the hypocrisy, they start to question parental authority, they start to question how God works. Tree of Life is filled with some truly lovely discussion points, all based on that "why" paradigm. Why does God send flies to wounds he should heal? Why must we keep trying? Misfortune befalls the good as well as the wicked, and as the children mature they certainly lose their innocence. Near this juncture the film plays as completely stunning ... and massively quixotic.
The other main character is an adult version of one of the O'Brien children. Sean Penn tackles this part, but it's fairly disjointed and difficult to follow. Penn's portion does occur in modern day, so we do get Malick's sweeping architectural vistas and impressive use of light. The modern scenes do lend a certain relevance to the proceedings, but they take just as much off the table in terms of emotional resonance. Again, it's hard to sit in judgment of the human experience laid bare in such an intimate manner, and Malick's ambition must be hailed even as his concepts separate him from the herd.
Tree of Life is a riddle. Captivating at times, ponderous at others, it is clear we're in the hands of a master, though it's just as clear he doesn't plan on giving you all the answers. In that Tree of Life is really the story of human existence, it can't help but be a little flawed.