The film opens up with a quote from the Book of Job, where God answers Job and then moves directly into a story about a family that discovers that their middle child had died, leading to a provoking question of why. As the film grapples with the many characters' questions and remarks to God, often drawn from the Bible, we also follow the family from the birth of their first son Jack (Hunter McCracken) and through their growth as boys, grappling with the dueling dual forces of their "nature" father (Brad Pitt) and "grace" mother (Jessica Chastain) in their lives.
While it takes some time to get used to the rhythms and approach of the film, the intimate examination of the O'Brien family life is quite powerful just on its own. Seeing the hypocrisies of Jack's father and his philosophical contrast with his mother as well as the resulting rebellion of Jack is enveloping. And even the theological and personal questions and prayers uttered by the characters is impressive. However, I think too much was made of that opening quote and the film's finale, which kind of pins the spiritual, personal and philosophical exploration of the film into an examination of the reasons why bad things happen to good people, but the film reaches far beyond that, so it's frustrating to see the film try to narrow itself down like that. Also, I felt that the grown up Jack (Sean Penn) sequences and presence weren't really necessary for the experiential thrust of the film.
Terrence Malick definitely has a kind of genius thing going about him and clearly keeps the word auteur valuable. His use of the camera, in its floating, handheld, close-up, dynamic sensibilities makes the visuals of even just the 1950's world of the main narrative visually arresting. And then there are the long visual passages accompanied by music and sometimes the questions, remarks and prayers of the characters, that follows the birth of the universe and the glory of the natural world, perhaps as God's answer to the characters as in the quoted Job passage, but the imagery doesn't stop there and is often visually stunning and remarkable in editing placement and timing. However, I do feel the film goes a little overboard at times with the quantity and feels a touch indulgent as a result. But, the often piercing score blends with the strong atmospheric soundtrack that absorbs as much as the visuals, resulting in a complete experience, enhanced by the immensely natural performances from the many actors.
The Tree of Life is really its own thing. A potent, powerful and often arresting film that reaches for the heavens when it comes to dealing with life's questions as well as painting a surprisingly honest portrait of life in family while doing so. And while its reach might be hampered by its own attempt to ground itself and its sometimes indulgent visuals and narrative constructions, it falls short into a place that is still a remarkable experience. This might be too much for casual moviegoers but I think cinephiles will at least find the attempt fascinating, even if it doesn't blow their minds like The Tree of Life did mine. 8/10.