If the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, as Edgar Allen Poe famously argued in 1846, then is the death of a beautiful woman’s child the second most poetical topic? So it would seem to filmmaker Terrence Malick, whose artful Tree of Life tries to gain emotional weight from actress Jessica Chastain’s soulful eyes and shapely ankles in the role of Mrs. O’Brien, a 1950s housewife whose son tragically dies.
It’s an image-driven film. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki finds transcendent beauty in everything upon which he turns the camera, from fluttering dresses to bursting sunspots. But even as Malick’s sparse script teases out complexities in Mrs. O’Brien’s husband (played by Brad Pitt)—by turns domineering and vulnerable and loving, a man tormented by lost dreams of becoming a classical pianist—it grants no such depth to Mrs. O’Brien. Despite being a central character, she has no back story before motherhood, no vices, no lost dreams, and almost no dialogue. Instead, the camera roves insistently over her lips, her clavicles, the nape of her neck, her calves, and her slim waist with a single message: Feminine beauty equals virtue.
The New York Times calls the storyline archetypal, familiar, recognizable. In his exploration of the family’s tragic loss, Malick certainly seems to be striving for the universal, even bringing the viewer back to the creation of the cosmos in a mid-film nature documentary tracing the origin of God’s inscrutability. Filmspotting critics Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson, who loved the film, wisely point out that “the connective tissue that runs throughout this film will impact so many people in so many disparate ways.” For me, the familiar impact was that of a woman being voiceless.