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Melded together by director Terrence Malick from bits of images, memories, and heart-cries, The Tree of Life envelopes us in one man's spiritual journey. Jack, played in adulthood by Sean Penn, ruminates on the mysteries of life and loss on the anniversary of his brother's death. The result is a fragmented but beautiful kaleidoscope of a film that is closer to a prayer set to music than to a story.
For the most part, the viewer stays inside Jack's mind, flitting from image to image in a visual train of thought that varies from sublimely beautiful to overwhelming. "When did I first look for You?" he whispers to God. His prayers are whispered over Jack's earliest memories, his lawn, the sun in the leaves, his mother (Jessica Chastain) reading a book, his father (Brad Pitt) holding his hand as he learned to walk, his understanding of God intertwined with his parents.
As he grows, he is not good as he desires to be. "I hate the things I do," he laments.
How does he get back to the garden?
Jack's mind also skims over ineffable mysteries. He pictures the Big Bang, the formation of nebulae and planets, and the process of evolution, something in which he imagines God could have a hand. He wonders if God is good when he sees suffering. Indeed, many of the prayers echo biblical passages, from Job to Paul.
Set to beautiful arias, organ music, and cathedral choirs, almost every frame is crammed full of meaning and imagery. At over two hours, the film (rated PG-13) could have shed a good number of clips, especially the ending, and not have lost any power. The nonlinear nature feels uncomfortable at times. However, as the credits roll, you feel full, satisfied, as after a symphony.
For more, see Rebecca Cusey's extended Web Extra review "A visual prayer."