In all fairness, I couldn’t understand why the R. L. character wasn’t simply cut out from the final version of the script. Jack is played as a youth by an excellent Hunter McCracken and as an adult by Penn, whose part is just a bit longer than a cameo.
The emotional core of the movie is rooted in Steve’s death, age 19, almost at the very beginning of the film. We never see Steve at that age, but we witness the pain felt by Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. After that, a middle-aged Jake still struggling to reconcile with the death of his younger brother, takes us back to a particular period of his youth in Texas. We follow him in a series of apparently loosely connected scenes of him playing with his brothers, fighting with his dad, laughing with his mom and speaking to God. All main characters in this film whispers questions to God.
The Tree of Life, with the best intentions, strives to be a truly spiritual work, which should inspire its audience. And that is where my main problem with it lies. The film fails us exactly where it intends to win our hearts and minds, in its cinematic spiritual representation of the meaning of life, and in its continuing whispering to a seemingly indifferent God. Typical for Malick, these whispers are delivered in voice-over narration. Malick’s God is from the Old Testament, the Bible’s God who challenges Job’s doubts by asking him: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? …What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" (Book of Job, 38: 4-7)
The Tree of Life opens with this quotation and it is probably the cipher to decode Malick’s film. His God, like Job’s, speak through whirlwinds and rays of light. At time he is also a lonely flickering flame against a pitch-black background. Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, to better represent the presence of God in every corner of life and nature, showers almost every scene with a flat overexposed white while, often, rays of light peer into the eye of the camera through whispering leaves, wind-caressed curtains, or running waters.