Some will say that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is about remembrances. Others will say that this is Malick’s cinematic monograph on how we, and the world we occupy, came into existence as seen through the eyes of one person examining his past to determine his future.
Malick opens the film with a Bible quotation from the Book of Job:
In Job 38: 4,7 God asks Job “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?”
Whether you believe in the Biblical version of how the world was created, or you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, or maybe you like the molecular theory as the starting point leading all the way up to a cosmic level… it doesn’t much matter because Malick gives you a look at all three. There’s an interesting adjunct to that as well. In a voice over, Mrs. O’Brien says:
There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
Malick doesn’t choose either one. He shows us both, and we must decide (although the film doesn’t lead us or even suggest that we should make a decision as to which is our preference).
On the surface, the adult Jack O’Brien played by Sean Penn is dissatisfied with the way things are. As he looks into his past – to the parental dynamic that he lived through, we experience his life fragments with him – from his birth to his early childhood impressions of sounds and sights, to his thoughts, fears, joys, and other things like stone dread, and crushing disappointments as a 10-year-old boy. One superb highlight is when Jack, as a curious two-year old has a good closeup look at his infant brother.
Since much of this comes in sort of a free association way – like a patient in psychological therapy, week after week, reliving moments from his past while on the Doctor’s couch – the film lacks a linear narrative. You might find that this methodology puts you off, or bores you, or in the most simple of terms – does not tell a story.
The answer is that this is exactly what was intended and is an absolutely correct description.
But if you put that aside, and just let the film wash over you the impression is different. The O’Brien’s were a patriarchal family – that would be Brad Pitt as the father who was domineering, and nearly abusive, but only to make his sons better people. There were three boys and early on, very early on, Mrs. O’Brien receives a telegram, and Mr. O’Brien at work receives a phone call. Their 19-year-old son has been killed. The parents, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, deal with it in their own way – which is light on warmth and support but heavily tilted toward silent stoicism. But Jack O’Brien never recovers from it completely. He goes on to become a succesful architect, but when we meet him, at that stage of his life, he looks hopelessly lost. He can’t focus on work, and he reflects the sorrow and agony of losing his brother despite the passage of more than 35 years.
It is my view that this is Malick’s way of dealing with some sort of post traumatic stress syndrome that has affected him as well as others he knows. Seemingly, it has been internalized within him for years only to emerge in this film which was actually made in 2009, but according to reports, had simmered inside of Malick for years. He reflects on not only his life but all life. Now some may see that as pretentious, because none of us have that kind of vision, or knowledge, nor the time to focus on the earth’s creation. But Malick has collected the theories and put them all into TTOL.
For us in the audience it is a mystical or magical experience. We watch life and death sequences involving creatures from the age of dinosaurs. We watch the planets and the cosmos from within in it as Malick has found a cinematic way to leave the terra firma that we all share. Some of it is immediately identifiable but some of it beyond our ken. I think Malick borrowed heavily from Kubrick’s 2001 leaving out the discovery of tools by the ape men, and the unexplained black monoliths discovered on a moon far, far away. But the mysticism and the light show are included though in a much sparser portions and in a more earthbound setting.
More of a mystery is the way Jack O’Brien evolved as he entered his teen years. He showed a tendency for cruelty to animals. He was physically forceful to his younger brother, and even more shockingly, there was a not quite repressed sexual attraction towards his mother. Maybe it was the internalized anger he had towards his father. That is a guess because the younger Jack doesn’t reveal his thoughts except when speaking to either his mother or father. We are given only the visual clues with one exception, and it is a strong verbal clue, when he says:
“Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
Malick goes about as far as he can to establish that Jack is something of a strange boy, but clearly he has absorbed something from his father, so he’s not really a disturbed child or someone needing care and support above and beyond parenting. But Malick doesn’t show us Jack’s entry into adulthood. He goes from a 10 or 12-year-old boy to the late 40’s Sean Penn. We know nothing else about his growth. In fact we are never told what ails Jack today. Malick leaves it to us to piece it together on our own based on what Jack remembers. So in reality Malick doesn’t provide us with answers because he’s not really asked any questions.
The film has some beautiful imagery that’s usually tied to some celestial type of music. On that level, Malick is presenting us with images and ideas meant to diminish us, make us small – which of course we truly are on a cosmic or even a global level. But I think that creates a distancing from what Malick is sending to what we actually receive. Some will view that kind of work as being elevated to the degree that they may call it an epic masterpiece. I’m not in agreement with the term masterpiece but I will agree with epic.
My reality or my ability to directly access with The Tree of Life is that boys are boys. I didn’t grow up in Waco, Texas as this family did. But I did grow up with heavily wooded areas just across the street to hike through, or to play as a scout, or even a make-believe frontiersman heading west. For us, and the O’Brien boys in the film, it was the age of discovery. On the other hand, Malick says nothing about Waco – our only clue is the wording on the public works truck coming through the neighborhood spraying DDT which clearly identified the location as Waco, or at least it was done that way to have us think it was Waco. I’m thinking that this is the case because we saw it twice in the film
But the main difference between my youth and this one was that I didn’t have a father who was the dominant parent figure, nor did I have the experience of the quiet neighborhood that we saw in this film. It was beautiful but nearly constantly empty. Just as Jack O’Brien’s adult life was equally empty for us. It is also my thought that many will say that this film was empty for them.