What with all that existential thinking, musing, and pondering to do in the name of research, The Tree of Life certainly required ample time to reach its dizzying heights of philosophy.
With high calibre A-listers, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt at the helm, Malick manages to weave a mind-blowing tapestry touching on family life, time, death, the possibility of God, and the universe to boot.
More specifically, it frames the story of troubled architect Jack O’Brien (Penn): generally adrift in life, teetering on the edge of a mid-life crisis and preoccupied with thoughts of his dead brother.
When he sees a tree being planted in front of a building, he begins the central reminiscence of the film. It cuts abruptly to a scene dramatising the formation of the universe where as the galaxies expand and planets are formed, Jack’s voice is heard asking various unanswerable questions.
Back to the plot and it flashbacks to a turbulent, sun-softened childhood in 1950s Texas, centering on his relationship with his angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) and ferociously strict father (Pitt).
As young Jack (Hunter McCracken) reaches adolescence, he sees his father struggle with paternal duty to prepare them for a tough world and an overwhelming love for his sons.
He is stern and borderline abusive, though deeply affectionate and nurturing. In contrast, Mrs. O’Brien is childlike and empathetic, but their suburban world is rocked when they receive a telegram informing them one of their sons died while serving his country.
Just in case we’ve forgotten Malick’s vision for the film, we are reminded to question our existence with scenes of cosmic creation, erupting volcanoes and the formation of microbes, which are jarringly interspersed with the relative normality of life, death and grief.
For movie fanatics who delight in film’s ability to provide escapism, Malick’s point is rather heavy handed.
However, those who go willingly for a cinematic challenge, The Tree of Life, forces us to ask the very question beyond most of our capabilities. Why do we exist at all?