Terrence Malick’s new movie, The Tree of Life, made news last month for the prolonged boos it drew after its world premiere at the Cannes film festival, boos that were eventually turned back by sustained applause from the film’s champions. The polar reaction isn’t too surprising, given the multitudes Malick tries to contain in one movie. Opening this week at Landmark’s Century Centre, The Tree of Life is proudly religious yet steeped in hard science; its story oscillates between the forces that shape the galaxy and the intimate problems of a little family in Waco, Texas. Malick implicitly presents the father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), raising three boys in the 1950s, as the respective embodiments of cruel nature and benign grace. On a career level, too, the movie reconciles the emotional force of Malick’s early classics, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), with the epic naturalism of his more recent films, The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). That’s an awful lot of branches for one tree.

Malick is famously reclusive—he never gives interviews and didn’t show up in Cannes when The Tree of Life won the prestigious Palme d’Or—but the known facts about him reveal a man of diverse interests and experiences. A native of Waco, he labored in the oil fields when he was young, then studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. He worked as a freelance journalist and in the late 60s earned an MFA from the American Film Institute Conservatory. After the critical success of Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick began developing a project called Q that would probe the origins of life, but it was never completed. Instead, he spent many years living in Paris and writing unproduced screenplays before making a comeback as a director in the late 90s. The Tree of Life has been gestating since the time of Q, yet Malick also consulted contemporary physicists, astronomists, and biologists from around the world to make sure his vision of the Big Bang and the earth’s formation would accurately represent the latest science.

To create these sequences, Malick collaborated with the great visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull, who made his name with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and went on to Oscar nominations for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Blade Runner (1982). Like Malick, Trumbull had retreated from the movie business, his old-fashioned optical effects succeeded by the wonders of digital technology. But working with physical materials was typical of Malick’s organic approach to filmmaking, and he and Trumbull experimented for more than a year to get the effects they were after. (As Trumbull recalls in the press notes, they played around with “chemicals, paint, fluorescent dye, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high-speed photography.”) The resulting images have a solidity CGI could never achieve, and the rich classical score heightens the sense of austere beauty as the earth explodes to life onscreen. Even the digital dinosaurs roaming the earth are integrated into lush real-life backgrounds.

These audacious sequences can’t help but evoke the metaphysical questing of 2001, and in fact The Tree of Life often feels like a religious response to Kubrick’s cold, cerebral view of the universe. Malick opens the movie with an epigraph from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, the father and mother in the story, know their Bible and look to the Lord for guidance. Poetic voice-over from the central characters has become one of Malick’s signatures, and here it often takes the form of whispered prayer from the ethereal Mrs. O’Brien. At one point she holds a child to her bosom, points up to the sky, and, beaming with delight, tells the little boy, “That’s where God lives!” Another lovely shot—captured completely by accident, Jessica Chastain recalls—shows Mrs. O’Brien reaching up her hand and a butterfly lighting on it.

None of this philosophical grandeur could have been sustained, though, if Malick hadn’t also delivered his most potent personal story since Days of Heaven. One can only speculate whether the father-son relationship at the center of The Tree of Life is autobiographical, but its emotional detail is vivid and painful. Brad Pitt has played so many sly or rascally characters that I wasn’t quite prepared for his sober, tight-lipped turn as Mr. O’Brien, a decent but angry man whose strict treatment of his sons is fueled by his own professional frustration and bitterness. An old-fashioned disciplinarian, he demands that his boys address him as “sir” and metes out punishments for every infraction of the household rules. He clearly loves his boys, but even his kisses and hugs feel oppressive. In one scene, as he and the eldest boy, Jack, part disagreeably at bedtime, Mr. O’Brien sternly asks him, “Do you love your father?” It’s a challenge, not an endearment, and the moody boy has no choice but to knuckle under: “Yes, sir.”

Played with quiet watchfulness by young Hunter McCracken (whom Malick discovered at an open audition), Jack begins to rebel against his father even as he becomes more like him, and their clash of wills grows so hateful that Mrs. O’Brien begins to recoil from her husband’s coldness. Malick has modestly structured his story around the boys’ accumulating life lessons, and as the movie progresses one can see Jack gradually acquiring an adult’s moral intelligence. He begins to see his parents’ uneasy relationship more clearly, and there are moments when he stuns each of them by suddenly articulating the truth of what’s going on in their little family. “You let him run all over you,” he cruelly observes to Mrs. O’Brien, offering the observation not in sympathy but in revolt against her authority. Later, when Mr. O’Brien is turning the screws on him, Jack calmly remarks, “It’s your house—you can kick me out whenever you want,” then muses, “You’d like to kill me.”

Malick relies on Mrs. O’Brien to spell out the movie’s central dilemma. “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace,” she explains to her sons in a voice-over. “You must choose which one you want to follow. . . . Nature only wants to please itself. . . . It finds reasons to be unhappy. . . . No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” Throughout the movie, Malick cuts to Houston Dallas some 40 years later, where a weary, middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) works in a giant steel-and-glass skyscraper, tethered to his job just as his father was to his. The family has since been marked by tragedy, and the grace his mother advocated seems as untouchable to Jack as the blue sky and clouds reflected in the building’s mirrored facade. Yet the movie ends with a fantasy sequence as nervy as the creation scenes, in which parents and children are reconciled forever in the afterlife. A sense of reconciliation is Malick’s great accomplishment in The Tree of Life, affording us equal wonder at grace and nature alike. 

E-mail J.R. Jones at jjones@chicagoreader.com.