Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess. On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him. Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him. Was it because of the bad things he did as a child? Was it a failure on the part of his parents? Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away? Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today? Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife.
Following a dream detailing the origins of life from the Big Bang to Evolution — a nearly endless and blissful FX sequence that rivals Kubrick’s ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey with its WTFWOW! factor — Malick whisks Jack and his audience back to that summer in Texas in the 1950’s, the last summer Jack and his family spent in the house where he and his brothers grew up before having to move when their father lost his job.
The O’Brien family is built on archetypes. Father (Brad Pitt) is intermittently harsh and affectionate, a man who struggles with instilling in his children skills he himself failed to learn. He dreams of being his own boss – of inventing – and of music. Mother (Jessica Chastain) is full of grace and wisdom, loving and ever-present, but naive to her husband’s domineering ways and her children’s growing resentment. She loves, she dances, she protects butterflies from their stalking pet cat and then later lets the cat snuggle on her lap on the front porch in twilight. The eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken) is on the cusp of rebellion and finds faults in both his parents. The middle son (Laramie Eppler) is more sensitive and artistic. The youngest son (Tye Sheridan) is innocent and longs for protection and companionship.
The performances are all astounding, with Malick’s unique filming techniques giving us the impression that we are like ghosts spying on this family’s most intimate moments leaving us with feelings of joy and melancholy as they struggle through their dysfunctions and try to find beauty and meaning in their lives and relationships. His camera is constantly moving in clean swooping motions and straight lines, looking up, looking under, looking over and bringing along with it heavenly choirs, perfectly chosen classical music, philosophical voice-overs, and sparse dialogue that stabs us in the heart with its simplicity and power.
All of Malick’s signature imagery is here: water both still and flowing, sunlight filtered through trees, wind blowing up and through open windows and doors, and people slowly walking to and from us. Emmanuel Lubezki, who also was the cinematographer on Malick’s The New World, outdoes himself here with his perfectly lit and framed compositions that sear into our minds as if they were our own images, our own hopes and dreams and memories. And throughout the film…there’s the tree, like Kubrick’s black monolith, like Dreyer’s face of Joan of Arc.
The elder present day Jack still can’t cope with the loss of his brother (the middle child), who died at age 19, presumably while serving in the military. In his dreams and memories he seeks answers and forgiveness. Moments, raw in their power and beauty and innocence, are recalled. Endless summer days riding bikes and playing ball with the neighborhood kids. Walking the streets after dinner and hearing a neighbor’s heated argument filter through open windows into the night. Letting his little brother cry on his shoulder while hiding out in the tall grass, both overwhelmed at the thought of having to leave their home. Jack remembers, too, those first hateful thoughts, the growing resentment, and those first actions that brought about shame and admonishment from his parents. There’s sibling jealousies and bitterness growing. There’s a new knowledge of death and a desire to survive suffering by causing it.
We never really know exactly why Jack still longs for this forgiveness from his brother. It’s as if the feeling is not stemming from one single moment, but instead from the totality of his memories. We witness one such moment from that fateful summer where he hurts his brother, and then successfully seeks and receives his forgiveness. We witness, too, a tender moment where his father confesses to him that maybe he was wrong, and that all he wants for his son is a better life. It’s what the adult Jack desires, but who knows what he might have said to his brother before he went away to war? Who knows what fight they may have had when they last saw each other? And who knows if he will speak and hear the right words when his parents pass from this world?
So still Jack wonders why. It’s in our nature to wonder why. It’s in our nature to be as cruel as we can be kind, to hate as much as we love. As Jack dreams in the film’s closing moments of a place where all the living and dead are reunited, we realize it is only in our dreams and memories where peace can be found. Earlier in the film his mother declares of the sky, “That’s where God lives.” But their God is no more in the sky than he is in those closing moments. The only things living there are each other, and our memories, and our dreams, and what little time gives us as it all comes closing to an end.
Written by David H. Schleicher
A Malick film is nothing without the reactions from those who experience it. Check out the best from the blogosphere regarding The Tree of Life:
Sam Juliano’s magisterial post at Wonders in the Dark stands tall.
Jason Marshall’s towering and perceptive piece exists at Movies over Matter.
Someone was bound to finally say it, and over at Condemned Movies there is no shyness in declaring the film the greatest ever made.
Over at Rachael Reviews Movies, the debate surrounding the film and the lofty expectations placed on it are beautifully wrestled, as well as how long it might be before anyone can truly define what the film means.
Check out David Micevic’s ruminations on Malick and the nature of nature at Boxing Uwe Boll.
Old stalwart Roger Ebert equates the film to a prayer at The Chicago Sun Times.
Steven Rea is brutally honest in his assessment over at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Dianne Glave over at Rooted in the Earth taps into the Biblical underpinnings while comparing the film to a series of paintings in motion.
Kevin Olson wonderfully captures the magic and confusion of the intial reaction.
At Cahiers d’Illusion, the Heidegger connections are laid out point by point in a most compelling essay.
Prakash Jashnani at Talking Talkies sees threads from East to West in this film of multitudes.
Surely you won’t mind Jake Cole fearlessly getting personal and comparing the film to music at Not Just Movies.
- For those wondering about all of the great music in the film, Opera Chic has a comprehensive listing of every classical piece used.