Slashed in between images of this stick-figure family are sci-fi scenes of the big bang, tectonic plates shifting, oceans colliding, stars exploding. For a solid 15 minutes early in the film, we watch as Malick unfolds his version of the beginning of time to an orchestral score by the French composer Alexandre Desplat. Not a word uttered, not a human to be seen (though we do witness some kind of interplay between two dinosaurs). Amoebae morph into jellyfish, and suddenly we’re in the entryway of a Texas home as Mrs. O’Brien cries out to God after learning of the loss of her son.
The Tree of Life premiered earlier this month at the Cannes Film Festival, and the audience was split: Half cheered, half jeered. Though the film won the festival’s Palme d’Or, it’s unlikely to sweep the awards season on this side of the Atlantic.
When I was in college studying writing, I authored a pretentious, wordy, condescending piece about suicide, which I self-indulgently titled “Soliloquy of a Stranger.” At the time I thought it to be a masterpiece. It was years later before I realized how right-on my teacher was in his simple stinging comment: “Want to be as powerful as a razor blade? Tell a story.” A filmmaker can be an artist. A filmmaker can inspire — make you think. But first and foremost, filmmaking is about storytelling, something Malick deprives us of in The Tree of Life.