Malick offers an impressionistic portrayal of the O'Briens as they go about living in suburban Texas in the 1950s, occasionally flashing forward to eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as he grapples with these memories. His torment stems partly from the death of his brother as a teenager, news of which is received in the opening sequence. Jessica Chastain, as mother, is devastated, seen wandering through a forest and in a poetic, whispering voiceover wanting to know: "Why...?" Her voice drifts out into the vast expanse of space where Malick shows us the violence and beauty of creation. This doesn't answer the question, but it does bring home the futility of asking.
Malick's awe of the natural world permeates all his films and provides the point of reference for difficult questions here. At times, he looks to a higher power, but not in the conventional sense. He makes mother the divine figure, at one point floating in white amongst the branches of a tree. She is all about life and love. In contrast, Pitt boils with destructive rage as father, constantly berating his sons, and especially young Jack (a captivating Hunter McCracken). It's a skilful balancing act by Pitt, who leaves us in no doubt that he loves his family, but also that he feels resentment for having sacrificed his dream of becoming a musician. He talks about his life as a wasted opportunity.
One man's attempt to find meaning (father, then son) is only the springboard to a bigger question that takes us back to the birth of the universe in scenes that bookend the film. Of course Malick cannot explain why we came into existence, but what he does convey so eloquently - on a gut level as well as an intellectual one - is the common need to know how we fit into the bigger picture. This is translated in an accessible way through Jack's teenage rebellion, which lends the film structure. His story may seem fragmented, but Malick's brilliance is in evoking feelings with images that trace a path to maturity, like flicking through an album of family photos.
Another advantage of having Malick behind the camera is that the images are strikingly beautiful, suggesting a dream that is easily shattered. He gets unnaturally close to his actors before cutting back to wide Kubrickian vistas of the planets in alignment. The effect is sobering - quickly putting us into context - but the director does occasionally lose his way. Early on, while we're still trying to get a grip on the O'Briens' loss, we're thrust back to the dinosaur age for a bemusing meditation on their demise. Eventually, however, this epic journey does lead to a poignant awakening for Jack (Penn), stood on a beach; the sea, a metaphor for everything unknowable. There's nothing too hard to grasp about this chain of events. As with life, it only demands a willingness to go with the flow.
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