Mrs. O'Brien represents grace. She is stunningly, ethereally beautiful. She's such a whimsical, pure soul that she is almost transparent. Mr. O'Brien is the flipside: Nature in all its cruelty. Lock-jawed and locked down, he is harsh, judgmental, emotionally withholding. 

Mr. O'Brien isn't awful, but his presence evokes a palpable, gut-wrenching tension in the rest of his family. She, meanwhile, 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, delivers one of the finest performances in recent memory by any actor, child or adult.  

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 realize that they have not heard a story as much as they have had an experience.

And 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 an entirely different kind of story.


c. 2011 Religion News Service. Used with permission.