The Daily Stream: The Tree Of Life Is An Ode To The Importance Of Every Person

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Tree of Life"

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: "There are two ways through life. The way of nature, and the way of grace." One of those is embodied by Brad Pitt and the other is embodied by Jessica Chastain in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." Chastain is up for an Oscar this month for her transformative performance in another religious film, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," and in "The Tree of Life," her and Pitt's characters (Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien) also take on aspects of the divine as they loom larger-than-life over their son, Jack (Hunter McCracken).

"The Tree of Life" opens with a quote from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" It's a question posed from God to Job, a man who loses everything that's important to him in a test of faith. For the O'Briens, a tribulation like that comes through the death of Jack's brother. For Mrs. O'Brien, God's opening question calls forth the implicit retort of, "Where were you (when my son died)?"

The answer to that, for Malick, seems to be: here, there, and everywhere all at once. In "The Tree of Life," the private and the primeval dwell side-by-side, as if to show how all things are equal in the eyes of eternity. By juxtaposing the trajectory of a single human life — Jack's coming-of-age in Texas — with the creation of the earth, Malick gives powerful expression to the idea of a personal God whose omnipresence enfolds both events and gives them comparable weight. For the human heart, the loss of a loved one is no less significant and cataclysmic than the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Why it's essential viewing

At the time of its release, "The Tree of Life" drew lofty comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," perhaps in part because Malick brought in the same legendary special effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, who also worked on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Blade Runner," among other films. Though Trumbull had been out of the movie business for many years, Malick was able to lure him back, just as he himself had come out of his own two-decade retirement in the 1990s to make "The Thin Red Line."

In his list for the 2012 poll of Sight & Sound's Greatest Films of All Time, Roger Ebert, the Roman emperor of movie criticism (it's all about the thumbs), called "The Tree of Life" a work of "almost foolhardy ambition" that "boldly begins with the Big Bang and ends in an unspecified state of attenuated consciousness after death." Ebert himself passed away the following year, but his last word in his last contribution to the once-a-decade poll was, "I believe it's an important film, and will only increase in stature over the years."

In "The Tree of Life," Malick and cinematographer and frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki were able to shuffle the deck of picture-perfect film frames without losing control of it or disappearing too far down the navel of an abstract narrative. Shots of treetops, waterfalls, jellyfish, and hammerhead sharks might land as if straight out of a nature documentary, but they go along with the conceit of a life and indeed all life branching through images.

Music also helps carry the viewer along, with selections such as Bedřich Smetana's "The Moldau" (a symphonic poem that, as Brittanica notes, is meant to evoke the flow of a river from the mountains to the city) giving the film a sweep and a lift that adds to its transcendent scope.

"If you're looking for something to happen, that was it"

"The way of nature" in "The Tree of Life" seems to refer more to human nature, anyway, as we see scenes of prehistoric life building up in visual harmony with Jack's later home life. In "Fight Club," Pitt conjured sympathy for the devil while tossing out lines like, "Our fathers were our models for God." Here, when his character says, "Hit me," he's teaching his son how to fight.

Mr. O'Brien is a failed American dreamer who clings to hopes of business deals and patents while he serves as a domineering presence at home. He tries to toughen his boys up through harsh discipline, telling them, "Your mother's naïve. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world." However, he himself only ever seems to be behind and he can be a petty man. The truth comes out when he tells Jack:

"Don't do like I did. Promise me that. I dreamed of being a great musician. I let myself get sidetracked. If you're looking for something to happen, that was it. That was life. You lived it."

To Jack, Mr. O'Brien becomes a symbol of hypocrisy and perhaps his own selfish, discontented nature, which can only be overcome though the grace of his mother and brother. Contrast the image of him looking back over his shoulder on his suburban street with the image of Mr. O'Brien looking back over his shoulder in their yard. There's a symmetry to moments like that.

Jack soon realizes how similar he and his father are and how he can't always relate to his mother, leading him to confess: "I'm as bad as you are. I'm more like you than her." "The Tree of Life" is a family drama, but it's one of biblical proportions in which Jack wrestles with forces inside himself like angels at the foot of heaven's ladder.

Lace curtains and asteroid strikes

As always, Malick's work is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone. His style of whispered narration, screensaver visuals, and fetishized natural light and lace curtains hasn't always cohered into a compelling plot with every film. Prior to "The Tree of Life," his output was sporadic, with only one or two movies per active decade.

"The Tree of Life" marked a prolific turning point in his career. The remainder of the 2010s would see him ramping up the quantity, if not quality, of entries in his filmography before making a return to form in 2019 with "A Hidden Life."

Back in 2011, at the Cannes Film Festival, "The Tree of Life" shared the same orbit as Lars von Trier's "Melancholia." The two films premiered within days of each other, and though they couldn't be more different, they do share one key facet. Each film enlarges and exteriorizes the spiritual or psychological struggles of its protagonist by conflating them with extinction events on Earth.

"Melancholia" uses the music of Richard Wagner, which Malick utilized in "The New World," to infuse itself with operatic grandeur as a rogue planet bears down on Justine (Kirsten Dunst, also Oscar-nominated this year), thereby literalizing her depression as the end of the world. In "The Tree of Life," it's an asteroid strike that sends out a shockwave over Mother Earth, not unlike the grief that overtakes Mrs. O'Brien.

Young Jack also carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, while his life, in its mundane specificity, becomes a microcosm of every person, contained within the macrocosm of all that was, is, or ever shall be. As he moves from innocence to experience, impressions of human mortality, deformity, and domestic violence begin to intrude on his world. A boy at the swimming hole drowns, and we see a truck spraying DDT like a cloud of poison through his neighborhood.

Once upon a time on Earth

Jack starts to act out in rebellious, destructive, and increasingly transgressive ways: throwing rocks through windows, strapping frogs to fireworks, roughhousing with the other boys and with his brothers more, and talking back to his parents. He also engages in some actual trespassing, as if he took the words of the Lord's Prayer ("forgive us our trespasses") a little too close to heart. It ends with him stealing his neighbor's nightgown, which becomes a source of immediate shame. In his young life, this is a major happening, just as it when his family finally packs up and moves.

It's not difficult to see how Jack could grow into a weary adult, sleepwalking through city life with the face of Sean Penn. At the end (of the movie and of all time), the sun becomes a red giant, enveloping the earth. Yet there's solace to be found, as if the star is gathering Jack in its embrace while he reunites on some heavenly beach plane of existence with his family.

Circling back to Job, that book of the Bible appears in the Old Testament, a collection of writings known for its genealogies and its successions of kings. On the one hand, it can be mind-numbing trying to wade through long lists of hard-to-pronounce names, tracing old bloodlines from one generation to another. On the other hand, it's not so different from listening to a winner onstage at the Academy Awards, listing off the names of all the people they want to thank.

Each one of those names belongs to an individual, remembered. We don't know if Chastain will be up there on stage the way Pitt was two years ago when he received his award for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." But it's comforting to think that somewhere out there, in the infinite library of human lives, there's a Book of Life with your name in it, and it's every bit as important as every other volume of the continuing saga that is "Once Upon a Time on Earth."