THE BLOG
05/28/2011 02:46 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2011

God at the Root of 'Tree of Life'

Terrence Malick's film, "Tree of Life," is nearly indescribable.

Not because its beauty or virtuosity are beyond words, although it has its moments.

"Tree of Life" is iconoclastic and its plot nonlinear, constructed by a series of impressions, images and the (largely unspoken) emotionally-charged dynamic between its characters, rather than dialogue between them or a story told in so many words.

Attempting to describe Malick's latest film, only the fifth he's released in his 40-year career, brings to mind the story of a famous "pitch" the enigmatic writer/director David Mamet made to his producer for the film that would become "The Edge," starring Alec Baldwin and Sir Anthony Hopkins.

When asked what his idea for the film was, Mamet said, "Something castable. Two guys, maybe."

"C'mon, Dave, I need more to go on," the exasperated producer replied.

"Two guys...and a bear," the filmmaker said.

Malick, who, despite his meager cinematic output is considered by many cinephiles to be one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, likely never made such an "elevator pitch" for his latest film. But if he had, it might have gone something like this: "It's about God, the Big Bang, family relationships, death, dinosaurs, jet engines and Texas. Basically it's about everything."

As the story goes, Malick began working on the idea for the film 30 or perhaps even 40 years ago. Reportedly, he spent years studying the origins of the universe and related science and technology with various top scholars. (A Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, before he began making films, Malick taught philosophy at MIT.)

Several critics claim that "Tree of Life" is his magnum opus, the culmination of all of his previous artistic endeavors.

Film critic Roger Ebert called the film "a form of prayer," that created a "spiritual awareness" in him personally, while eschewing "conventional theologies."

As for the filmmaker's intentions, Malick isn't saying. Notoriously private, he does not grant interviews and kept "Tree of Life" shrouded in secrecy from its inception until its screening at Cannes last week.

Fox Searchlight, the studio that released the film, which opens in selected theaters today (Friday, May 27), described it as, in part, the story of "a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith."

It is that. But it is much more than that.

The film begins with a quote from one of the more confounding books of the Bible: Job. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?"

The biblical story of Job is popular fodder for filmmakers. The Coen Brothers' 2009 film, "A Serious Man," was based loosely on the Job story: A good man beset by calamity -- he loses his business, his family dies, he comes down with horrible boils -- Job refuses to curse God. His friends try to help him figure out why he's suffering so, each coming up with a different wrongheaded theory. Yet Job remains faithful.

It isn't until Job actually sees God that the questions are answered and he is restored in every way. First, though, God reminds Job that God is the Creator of all things and the author of life, so who is Job to question God's wisdom?

"Tree of Life" opens in 1950s Texas with Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien, (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in the midst of a Job-esque tragedy when they learn one of their children has died.

And the questions begin.

Malick's dialogue is almost ascetically minimalist. Much of what is said is rendered in whispered voiceovers.

"Did you know? Where were you?"

"How did she bear it?"

"How did you find me? How did I love you?"

"When did you first touch my heart?"

There are two ways through life, the film posits, grace or nature. It's up to everyone to choose a path and its consequences.

Mrs. O'Brien represents grace. She is stunningly, ethereally beautiful. She's such a whimsical, pure soul that she is almost transparent. (Chastain is a dead ringer for the eponymous subject of John Everett Millais' classic drowning "Ophelia" painting.)

Mr. O'Brien is the flipside: Nature in all its cruelty. Lock-jawed and locked down, he is harsh, judgmental, emotionally withholding. He isn't awful but his presence evokes a palpable, gut-wrenching tension in the rest of his family. She is freedom and light. He is a funereal pall, telling Young Jack that if he wants to succeed in life he "can't be good."

"Young Jack," the eldest of the three O'Brien siblings, is portrayed by newcomer Hunter McCracken, who steals the film from his stellar co-stars. McCracken, now a high school freshman in Byron, Texas -- a tiny town about 100 miles northwest of Dallas with a population of less than 600, -- delivers one of the finest performances in recent memory by any actor, child or adult.

Scouts for the film, who scoured small towns in Texas searching for boys to play the three O'Brien brothers -- reportedly vetting more than 10,000 kids in the process -- discovered their Young Jack on a the playground at his grade school several years back. McCracken had no previous acting experience before filming on "Tree of Life" began.

(Sean Penn plays said the Adult Jack, the aforementioned "lost soul," apparently. But the Oscar-winner appears only briefly on screen, wandering through modern-day Houston, a desert, a beach -- saying little and appearing thoroughly angst-ridden.)

Wide-eyed and gangly, McCracken's Young Jack is thoroughly compelling; laconic yet brimming with emotions he struggles to keep locked inside. He loves his father and he hates his father. It's a paradox that mirrors his relationship with God.

"Tree of Life" is not a film for the masses. Only serious film lovers will abide its chronological gymnastics and general obtuseness.

However, if the audience hangs in there, as the film concludes with a scene that has startling emotional power, they may realizes that they have not heard a story as much as they have had an experience.

Perhaps that was Malick's goal.

When making a film that is, essentially, the chronicling of God's relationship with humankind, even the most eloquent narrative would seem anemic.

But seeing God and experiencing the Divine? That's is an entirely different kind of story.

A version of this story originally appeared via Religion News Service.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and the forthcoming Belieber!: Fame, Faith & the Heart of Justin Bieber.