Terence Malick's ambitious and poetic Tree of Life is a stunning and complex personal exploration of faith, loss, memory and experience, mostly focusing on the lives of a family living in Waco, Texas during the 1950s. In present day New York, Jack O'Brien (played by Sean Penn), is struggling in a world that he sees as having "gone to the dogs," seeming alienated and troubled by an architectural project that poses a monumental challenge in his career. On the anniversary of his younger brother's death at the age of 19, Jack reminisces about his childhood and his relationships with his deceased brother, R.L., his permissive mother, played by Jessica Chastain, and his domineering and stern father, played by Brad Pitt. The film's narrative is presented in fragmented recollections, metaphysical and metaphorical imagery, dreamlike sequences and whispered voice over, providing haunting and nuanced glimpses into the lives of its characters and juxtaposing them with grand symbolism infused with philosophical and religious connotations.
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy." - Job 38: 4,7
The film opens with a quote from the book of Job, from the Hebrew Bible, in which the pious character of Job loses his offspring and then suffers at the hands of Satan by God's permission. Although Job does not curse God, he seeks to "argue" his case with the Creator in search of an explanation, while his friends insist that God's concern lies with general providence and not singular intervention or the fate of the individuals he has created. Job embodies the battle of reason versus faith in a personal God, and this is a battle that the characters in The Tree of Life come to face in the wake of the deaths, tragedies and the pitfalls that befall them. The young Jack attempts to speak to God, as heard in his voice-overs, seeking answers and asking why he should be good when even bad things happen to supposedly good people.
Another struggle that permeates throughout the character's lives is introduced by Mrs. O'Brien at the beginning of the film when she speaks in voice-over of nature versus grace. Pitt's character, Mr. O'Brien, represents the way of nature as outlined, exercising his power over his family, pushing them to do his bidding and persuading them to prove their devotion to him. Mrs. O'Brien and L.R. represent the way of grace; they are both more permissive and accepting and L.R. is shown to be particularly gifted creatively, playing the guitar and painting at a young age. In one scene Mr. O'Brien is teaching the boys to fight; Jack eventually tries his best to punch his father while R.L. is almost completely unwilling to engage in physical confrontation, this difference between the two brothers is highlighted repeatedly throughout and even explicitly discussed by the pair. Malick poses moral quandaries, filtering them through the religious and philosophical, and explores the way in which our experiences during childhood shape our beliefs and attitudes.
"I didn't know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me."Jack, the elder of the two, asserts his dominance over R.L. but breaks the bond of trust between them and reveals a darker violent tendency when he mercilessly shoots his brother in the hand with an air rifle. Malick fixates on Jack's behavior as influenced by his father, whom he grows to resent, as well as his frustration with his inability to wield the same creative inspiration as his younger brother; "What I want to do, I can't do. I do what I hate." Mr. O'Brien, a failed musician, also shows signs of jealousy toward his more creatively gifted son. Human and animal nature is questioned recurrently within the film, the notion that natural instinct leans toward violence is considered but juxtaposed against Mrs. O'Brien's consciously nurturing domesticity and R.L.'s talent with the arts. In the early portion of the film Malick unexpectedly abandons the 1950s setting in order to show us a reconstruction of the scientific view of the creation of the universe and our planet, as well as the extinction of the dinosaurs. During one sequence a predatory dinosaur comes across another wounded creature, pinning its head down with its foot it prepares for the kill only to change its mind without explanation and spare its life. Perhaps Malick is oddly trying to convince us that nature is not entirely cruel, or perhaps it is just another symbol of the unexplained. These dualities and contradictions serve to portray our existence as complex and occasionally indefinable, spanning all creation.
The film is book-ended with visual realizations of the birth and death of the universe, but rather than diminishing the impact of the emotional story at the heart of the film compared to these grandiose segments, it seems to me to serve the theme of unity, the notion that everything is connected, past and present, life and death, the human soul and the vast cosmos. The tree of life is actually a recurring motif throughout various religions, mythologies and philosophies, symbolizing wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, love of God in Eastern Christianity and the inter-connectedness of all life and post-mortal existence in other sources. The final shot of the Brooklyn bridge reflects this idea of connection rather literally, as does the sequence with the older Jack walking on the beach with characters from his past amongst a sea of people. Many critics have expressed their dislike of this scene for portraying a saccharine vision of heaven, whereas I read this as a visual metaphor for what I see as the core message running throughout the film. Mrs. O'Brien repeatedly speaks of love in her voice-over, with the implication that she has attempted to impart this advice on the young Jack, telling him that "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by." She also says "Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive." and in Jack's vision at the end he imagines her finding peace, coming to terms with her son's death and revealing forgiveness, offering him to God and the universe.
The young Jack seeks answers from God much in the same way that Job did; "Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good ? When You aren't... Are You watching me? I want to know what You are. I want to see what You see." It isn't difficult to come away from the film and label it as a New Age exploration of God as love. Malick's inclusion of the Big Bang coupled with the scene during the Late Cretaceous period seems to support a scientific view of the creation of the universe and yet faith and notions of God play an integral role within the film on numerous levels, as ruminated by the characters and through purposefully placed religious imagery. Malick inserts a portion of Thomas Wilfred's "Opus 161," originally created as an interactive light and sound composition that Wilfred dubbed Lumia, between scenes. The image is left unexplained, appearing as some sort of cosmic entity, perhaps representing Malick's idea of God as an elusive force. It would seem that Malick invites us to accept God in this way, embracing a unifying New Age idea of God whereby the Creator's presence is felt through our power to love and forgive, and that therein lies enlightenment.
Jack searches for an elusive transcendental answer and finds none, but through his dreamlike visions he equates the hand of God with the love and grace he sees in his mother and in particular R.L., who urges Jack to "follow" him. Rather than inviting him into death, heaven or some metaphysical plane it seems to me that this vision of R.L. represents Jack's conclusion that to live and love by grace is the highest attainable truth and peace we can find in this life and this is reflected when the older Jack states at the beginning "Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door." Jack lights a candle in honor of R.L. but we may question how Jack's journey has really affected him and to what extent, since we only see a glimpse of his later life as an architect working in New York. The elder Jack's cynicism in regards to the world is linked to the urban sprawl surrounding him, Malick revealing the grey Houston buildings and streets as Jack expresses his discomfort and disdain, a stark contrast to the nostalgic vision of 1950s suburbia that Jack remembers.When Jack looks at the building he has designed, finally realized, its towering glass structure reflects the sky as it reaches toward the heavens. Young Jack's behavior was shown to be destructive, breaking windows and shooting animals with his air rifle, but the elder Jack helps to create rather than destroy, although the dichotomy here is that he is adding to the urban sprawl which he seems to have cultivated an aversion for. Whatever your judgement regarding Jack may eventually be, the message of love is what shines through for me in the film, and despite the fact that it's very depressing at times, it's also very touching and beautiful.
The cinematography created by Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is stunning, from the incredible visuals in the space sequences to the nostalgic Texas childhood scenes, awash with golden light. The camera glides through the air, turning upside-down to catch shadows dancing across the ground, swinging from side to side to evoke a dreamlike sensation and occasionally creating a sense of unease through distorting camera angles. The acting is stellar from all involved, Pitt plays the domineering father with frightening intensity, carefully handling the complexities of his character, while Jessica Chastain emotes magnitudes through facial expressions and movement. The child actors are astonishingly captivating to watch and always completely believable, Malick more so than any other filmmaker I can think of has captured the interplay and behavior of children with such great clarity and precision that it's almost startling. The Texas portion of the film is truly one of the greatest slices of family drama ever put to celluloid. Seeing how these brothers react to the world around them and how their experience and upbringing affects them is riveting and at times terrifying.
Regardless of what you may think of the narrative, the film is undoubtedly an astonishing technical achievement. While its reach is epic in scope on many levels certain aspects are lacking, some may find the exclusion of the brothers' teen years and the details of R.L.'s death disappointing. Although sexuality is explored through Jack's gaze, sex itself is never touched upon, his sexual awakening never comes to fruition and sex between Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien is left completely out of the equation. Despite being set in 1950s Texas the issue of race is also noticeably marginalized. Malick himself was born in 1943 in Waco, where the childhood scenes are set, and it has been said that the film contains a lot of autobiographical detail, although this is difficult to confirm due to his protectiveness over his personal life, but it certainly isn't difficult to believe that Malick poured a lot of himself into this film judging by how carefully and lovingly it is crafted. The Tree of Life deserves praise for many reasons, but ultimately it is the wonderful message that it carries with it that makes me want to sing its praises. We all have the ability to choose the path of grace and to love and forgive, to plant seeds of wisdom and learn from our experiences, and this is the truest form of enlightenment we can achieve in this life.