Director Terrence Malick traces the evolution of an 11-year-old boy in the Midwest, from his first experiences of joy love and mercy (from his mother), to his introduction to the 'ways of the world' (from his father). Each parent contends for his allegiance, and the boy must reconcile their claims. His experience of the world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth as he seeks unselfish love.

3.5
A touching examination of life's Big questions.

CANNES: Life/death, grace/nature, micro/macro... such are the contradictions at work in both the content and overall cohesion of Terrence Malick’s masterful/ramshackle new film.

An experiential exercise in deterministic chaos, The Tree Of Life fuses Old Testament theology with Southern sensibilities and science fiction visuals to ponder the origins and the nature of suffering.

Malick cites the Book of Job in the film’s opening title card, and the subsequent frames are infused with this biblical tale of enlightenment through endurance.

To the extent that it has a narrative, The Tree of Life taps into the wellspring of grief both old and new, from the perspective of a bereaved Christian mother in mid-century small town Texas (Jessica Chastain), and by one of her surviving sons, now grown, in contemporary Houston (Sean Penn).

Jessica Chastain speaks to Fiona Williams at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Mrs. O’Brien lavishes unconditional love upon her three boys, and counters the stern remonstrations of her authoritarian husband (Brad Pitt). She encourages the innocence of play and the joy of discovery, where her husband focuses on setbacks and limitations; a late starter in the race toward the American Dream, Mr. O’Brien counsels his sons on the sinfulness of lost opportunities.

Their competing methods battle it out within eldest son Jack, who shows early resemblance to his mother but through subsequent bursts of rebellion, takes on a more general likeness to his father.

News of an O’Brien boy’s death provokes soul-shaking feelings of remorse and despair that render the O’Briens immune to the well-intentioned but borderline-callous reassurances of friends and family. ('You still have the other two.")

Through internal monologue we become privy to the O’Brien’s moments of introspection, as they peer into the void and pose the Big Questions that have plagued philosophers and theologians for millennia: Why does misfortune befall the good? If there’s a higher power, who are we to it?

However, matters of plot, as outlined above, are for the most part, extraneous to The Tree of Life; the O’Brien’s experience is but one movement in Malick’s overarching symphony, which incorporates everything from Brahms to Mahler, dinosaurs to splitting atoms, in its exploration of the impermanence of life.

Comparisons to Kubrick are inevitable, and a direct link is drawn through the involvement of effects master Douglas Trumbull and his extraordinary visualisations of pre-history and the outer space.

SBS Movies interviews legendary visual effects master Douglas Trumbull.

To be sure, the subjective nature of the film will not resonate with all audiences – a smattering of audible boos greeted the end credits at its debut screening here in Cannes. However, Malick’s reverence for all of his characters helps The Tree Of Life rise above its limitations – Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are realised beyond the constraints of archetype. Though brief, Pitt’s screen time ranks among his best to date, as a father overcome with remorse for the impact of his actions upon his impressionable charges.

Malick collaborated with no less than five editors to realise his metaphysical journey. According to producer Sarah Green, the high turnover was a consequence of the difficulty in a single editor being able to "maintain clarity" over the inordinately long post period (the film wrapped at least three years ago). That said, images as profound as those within The Tree Of Life should never be deemed tiresome, yet momentum tends to lag in some sequences, especially in a reunion setting that takes place on an expansive beachfront. Wags might wish they had the patience of Job to sit through some of the less effective moments devoted to Penn’s contemporary struggle to find his place in the world. But in the main, Malick’s juxtaposition of the ebb and flow of the natural world against the microcosm of family life is extremely effective and deeply affecting.

Watch 'The Tree of Life' at SBS On Demand