As films go, The Tree of Life is a huge thing — a movie by a man with the audacity to take as his apparent subject all of human existence. “I know something about the cosmos,” Terrence Malick seems to declare, “because I grew up with two brothers under the parentage of a gruff father and a beaming, adoring mother in sun-dappled environs of Oklahoma and Texas.” He’s not wrong. The greatest filmmakers have shown us again and again that there is no story that cannot, in the right hands and with the right gestures, be spun out to dimensions that encompass questions of love and faith, life and death, regret and longing.
Director Terrence Malick’s return to the multiplex in 1998 with The Thin Red Line was one of the more remarkable comebacks in the 100-year history of the movie industry. Malick, a Texas native who made two of the most celebrated and influential American dramas of the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, promptly vanished for a good 20 years before returning with, of all things, a meditation on nature and humanity on the front lines of the Second World War. That his comeback film saw only modest box-office returns but earned seven Oscar nominations is an indicator of the esteem in which Malick is held by his peers.