The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick, director
The first time I viewed The Tree of Life starring Sean Penn, I didn’t understand or grasp all of it, yet I was profoundly moved by it. There is something deeply spiritual about this Cannes-film-festival award-winning film with which I resonate. The visual imagery is stunning, but the story line eluded me somewhat. There were muttered reactions of dissatisfaction by people around me, disparaging laughter, and expressions of frustration. The Tree of Life is impressionistic and metaphysical, its narrative fragmented and non-linear.
I would recommend a second viewing for several reasons:
1) The whispered voiceovers that tell the viewer what is going on in a character’s mind (similar to stream of consciousness writing) are difficult to follow.
2) At a first viewing, one may discover the story and miss much of the symbolism and deeper meaning in the movie (for example, a dimly lit hallway with a dark staircase leading to a window, tall trees that open up to the sky – both images of hope).
The Tree of Life explores relationships and emotions, not events. These relationships are between husband and wife, father and son, mother and son, brother and brother, God and humankind. Emotions range from grief, rage, envy, frustration, to joy and peace.
The movie opens with God’s answer to Job’s question as to why he had to suffer when he had done nothing wrong: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…. When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7 NKJV).
The big event, the loss of a young life, occurs early in the movie. Viewers observe the grief of parents (especially that of the mother) at the sudden death of their young adult son. At this point the Job quote is illustrated by a panoramic dramatization of the creation of the universe and the beginning of life in answer to the mother’s whispered questions to God, “Lord, why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?”
Between this event and the gradual acceptance of the death of a family member, the movie explores (in flashbacks) the life of a family, and the emotions within that small circle of people trying to make sense of life and spirituality, in a cosmos that often seems senseless and ruled by nature not by grace. The adolescent main character Jack at one point echoes the Apostle Paul when he kicks at objects in an abandoned house, muttering: “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.”
The story takes place in Texas in the 1950s. Jessica Chastain plays the part of Mrs. O’Brien. The opening scenes picture her as a little girl and shortly thereafter as young woman receptive to the beauty in the world around her, embracing life and all it has to offer. “The nuns taught me that there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you follow,” she says.
“Grace doesn’t try to please itself; accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked; accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself — gets others to please it too — likes to Lord it over them — to have its own way. It finds reason to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it — and love is smiling through.”
It’s obvious Mrs. O’Brien has chosen the way of grace. Following a butterfly until it lands lightly on her finger, moving gracefully behind gauze curtains, actually floating upward at one point, as if suspended from an invisible string — she is all about freedom and light.
Her husband, portrayed by Brad Pitt, is short-tempered and frustrated, competitive and envious of others who are wealthier. He has definitely chosen to follow nature. Musically gifted and resentful that he has not pursued his talents, he often makes life difficult for his wife and his three sons, especially the eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn). He advises the adolescent Jack not to grow up to be like him, but to pursue success. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” O’Brien tells Jack.
Jack does grow up to be a prominent but unhappy architect. The way of nature and the way of grace struggle within him. “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me, always you will,” whispers a voiceover. At the outset, the movie shows him as an adult in a telephone conversation with his father. The tragic event in his family haunts him, and he tells his father that there isn’t a day that goes by in which he doesn’t think of it. The movie then flashes back to his childhood and adolescence.
Mrs. O’Brien’s struggle with grief is very real and very cathartic for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. After a long period of mourning, she is able to release her son and says in a whispered voiceover, “I give him to you, I give you my son. I leave it all in your hands.” The way of grace is to choose to accept the mystery, to live with the questions, and to be grateful. Her place of loss and her own emptiness becomes a place in which she meets God.
(Spoilers to follow) In a final scene, Jack’s whole family appears before him in a vision of a joyful reunion. He sees his deceased brother again, and together the family releases his soul to another spiritual level.
Director Terrence Malick spent many years writing this family drama. Having lost a brother to suicide, he writes from his own experience.