'The Tree of Life' brings universe to theater


With the Oscars hurriedly approaching, the speculation regarding which nominee will be crowned best picture is reaching fever pitch. Though the prize will most likely be awarded to "The Artist" or "The Descendants," its rightful recipient, writer-director Terrence Malick's magnum opus, "The Tree of Life," towers above any competition.

Summarizing a film so centralized around its extraordinary cinematography is nigh-upon impossible.

Is it the story of Mr. O'Brien, a disciplinarian father struggling with raising three radically different sons and with his own ordinariness? Is it the story of Mrs. O'Brien, a spiritual mother who exudes forgiveness and affection?

Is it the story of adolescent Jack, the eldest of the three sons, a boy characterized by a fear of becoming what he despises in his father and by a restless, itching urgency to become an adult? Is it the story of middle-aged Jack, an urban professional saturated in postmodern angst as he struggles to understand both his fraught relationship with his father and the death of his brother?

Or, better yet, is it the story of the creation of the universe, depicted in breathtaking cosmic images?

"The Tree of Life" offers few concrete answers, free-associative and non-linear as it is, skipping effortlessly through time and space, through 1950s Texas and the creation of the universe, through idyllic childhood and contemporary adulthood. Its narrative unfolds through seemingly unrelated images and through whispered voice-over. In doing so, it asks its viewer to participate in the creation of its meaning.

It evokes an upbringing many of us have experienced: A time of sprawling lawns and the endless idleness of sum bmer days, of dinner table theater and drinking from the garden hose, of a restless urgency to grow up and discover who we are.

The Tree of Life is an immense film about immense things - about the manner in which we wrestle with the impressions left by our parents, about skepticism versus faith, about our tempestuous relationship with God, about our rightful place in the universe.

It asks weighty questions about the profound connection between human beings, about the loss of innocence, about why we were put on this earth and by whom.

Its themes are painted in lovingly understated strokes: The struggle of the grieving process, the question of why bad things befall good people, the difficulty of accepting suffering as an act of creation.

In the O'Brien family, Malick lends such momentous weight to the small, ephemeral phenomena of day-to-day life (an infant's foot, a running tap, a shaft of sunlight, etc.) that they slot into the significance of the nebulas and galaxies of the macrocosm.

In a review of "The Tree of Life," film critic Roger Ebert's calls the movie, "a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives." He crafts a profound evocation of feeling by shining the light of the sacred onto the secularism of everyday reality.

Malick has accomplished what no other filmmaker has ever accomplished: He has crafted arguably the most visually stunning film in the history of filmmaking, he has rendered the mundane every bit as momentous and mysterious as the profound and he has, in essence, brought the cosmos into the Cineplex.

"The Tree of Life" captures the tension and tenderness of marriage, the volatility and fidelity between siblings, the enthralled manner in which we perceive the world as children.

It encapsulates what it means to be sentient, what it means to be alive, what it means to be aware of our own mortality. It won't win best picture, but for decades to come, it will stand as a towering illustration of what movies are, of what they should be and of what they can be.

-Westenfeld is a freshman from Fort Wayne, Ind., majoring in creative writing and English literature. features@thedepauw.com