In 1950s Texas, Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive a telegram informing them their 19-year-old son has died. Despite their loss, they must continue to help their remaining three boys, Jack (Hunter McCracken), RL (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), negotiate the hardships of growing up.
While RL and Mr O'Brien bond over their shared creativity, eldest son Jack is consumed by the feeling that he has never won his exacting father's love. Experiencing a loss of innocence in the face of his brother's death, Jack begins to question his place in the universe.
Inviting both acclaim and disdain from audiences and critics, Terrence Malick's fifth feature in almost 40 years is an audacious addition to his sparse, but impressive, CV. Somehow managing to be about everything and nothing at the same time, The Tree of Life sees the visionary film maker eschew a linear narrative in favour of creating a picturesque collage, that brings to mind the perusal of a family photo album.
In one of the most striking sections of the film, a wordless montage portrays the birth of the universe. While some argue these abstract, philosophical touches add a profundity to the family drama, others may find it makes events a little too detached to be truly moving. When called upon to deliver moments of emotional truth however, the cast (including Sean Penn as the adult Jack) are superb, with Chastain and Pitt in particular giving engaging performances.
With his last film release being 2005's The New World, the years Malick has taken to bring this vision to fruition are very much in evidence. His ambiguous style may prove too demanding for some, but it is hard to deny the immaculate construction of this piece that earned Oscar nominations for cinematography, directing and Best Motion Picture. Every frame is a gem and its Palme d'Or win in 2011 ensures The Tree of Life will go down as an achievement of some note.