As I said in my review of writer-director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I think the film–which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain–is a masterpiece of both filmmaking and soulful philosophical, metaphysical thought.
But The Tree of Life can be a difficult work to “get.” Despite the presence of big-name actors like Pitt and Penn, it’s a pure, experimental art-house film that has little in the way of linear narrative or conventional dialogue.
The following is my attempt to give my personal answers and interpretations to some questions about The Tree of Life.
- I. Opening: In the late ’60s, Jack O’Brien’s parents (Pitt and Chastain) learn of their second son R.L.’s suicide at age 19
- II. Present-Day Jack: Some 40 years later, on the anniversary of his brother’s death, adult Jack (Penn) struggles with existential ennui
- III. The Cosmos and Evolution: The film jumps back to the beginning of time and the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies and the Earth, the rise of life on Earth, and the arrival of the dinosaurs
- IV. Jack’s Birth, Growth, and Childhood: The section comprising the majority of the film begins with Jack’s birth and follows him (played as a young boy by Hunter McCracken) through infancy, childhood, the arrival of his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and their experiences growing up in the ’50s in Waco, Texas, with their mother (Chastian) and domineering father (Pitt)
- V. The End of Time: After coming back to the present, the film jumps ahead to the cosmic end of the Earth and the Universe
- VI. Jack on the Beach: Adult Jack moves through a metaphysical and metaphorical desert, making his way to The Sea and a reunion with his loved ones in some sort of Afterlife
1) What’s the Best Way to Watch The Tree of Life?
While the film is a stunningly beautiful journey of visual splendor and aural richness, you don’t have to see it in a theater to appreciate it. But at home you do need to watch it like you’re in a theater. Malick’s films want to draw you into a fugue state—they’re meant to be not just watched but totally immersed into. Multitasking, often pausing and restarting it as you wander off to do other things, or even looking away from the screen is going to keep you from really opening up and sinking into the film.
Malick grew up in the ‘50s in Waco, Texas. Like the character of R.L. in the film, Malick’s younger brother Larry was a classical guitarist who, under increasing stress over his musical training, broke his own hands in the late ‘60s. Not long after that, Larry committed suicide. It’s that tragedy and its root causes that form the core of and resonate throughout Malick’s film.
3) Why is the Film so Jumbled and Episodic?
Malick is doing more than just examining what his brother’s suicide says about his family, life, and his relationship with God—he’s also constructed The Tree of Life to try and capture a sense of human consciousness and memory, the way we perceive life, the world around us, and our past as well as our larger connections to each other and existence.
As I said in my review, the intent is to use cinema as memory and show memory as cinema. It’s a film that’s not just about being, but aims to capture the experience of being.
To that end, the film roams back and forth, and the childhood scenes that make up the majority of the film are fragmented and sketchy because that’s how we remember things, all mixed together, in bits and pieces, never objectively, not always truthfully.
The filmmaker also prefers narration to the usual interactive dialogue. Most of the character’s express themselves with voice-over questions, usually to spoken directly to God.
Malick suggests our existence as both biological and spiritual beings is part of a much larger continuum and connectivity. The film underscores the deep, long-time paradox of human life: That we are both only here alive for a very, very, very brief, and yet we are part of a huge, never-ending stream of time and space, going back—as the film shows—to the birth of the universe and continuing on to its eventual death. We are simultaneously so very small and yet so vast.
Malick has always been fascinated in humans’ spiritual connection to nature, especially in films like The Thin Red Line and The New World. Which is why so much of The Tree of Life lingers on nature; trees, rocks, leaves, sunlight, and of course the sea, a long-standing literary and artistic metaphor for Life.
In the closing of the film we see adult Jack (Penn) first making his way over rough, rocky, barren desert terrain that’s lonely and inhospitable. However, as we see images of the universe ending, Jack steps through a doorway (openness to and acceptance of a higher grace) and passes on to The Beach, a sort of Heaven-like metaphysical place where he sees all his loved ones, living and dead. It’s where the collective human spirit comes together, and of course it’s by The Sea.
The dinosaurs are one of my favorite elements of The Tree of Life. There’s the plesiosaur on the beach, craning its long neck to gaze back at the fatal wounds on its own side and then out to sea, leaving us to wonder if the creature is aware of its own fast-fading mortality.
One of the most powerful film scenes of recent years is the hunting troodon spotting its prey, a parasaurolophus, among the stones of a shallow creek. The predator first pins its cowering victim with its foot, but then tentatively releases it, testing notions of grace and mercy that go against its biological programming.
While The Tree of Life’s plot centers on adult Jack still trying to make sense of his brother’s suicide and how his father’s domineering bitterness factored into it, that’s only a jumping-off point. Malick (who studied philosophy at Oxford) is wrestling with the same questions he’s been probing in his films for over a decade.
Why are we the way we are? Why do we commit selfish acts of violence and cruelty? Why do we hurt one another? How do we reconcile our spiritual side (grace) with our physical side (nature)? How do we connect on a larger scale?
And, as suggested by the questioning voice-overs and mentions of Job in the film’s opening and church scenes, where is God in all this? Does He listen? Does He care? Why does He punish the innocent and let the guilty go unharmed? What does God want from us?
Malick focuses this all down onto Nature versus Grace. “Nature,” expressed by Pitt’s Father character as he teaches his boys to fight, is the evolutionary survival of the fittest: “Good gets taken advantage of… It takes fierce will to make it in this world.”
But working through his own memories, Malick feels “Grace” is the human spirit’s quest to transcend Nature–to give true meaning to our existence we must rise above simple brutal and cruel survival. This grace and compassion is embodied by Chastain’s Mother character, who says, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
I know not everyone shares my love of The Tree of Life, but I’d really like to hear in the comments others’ thoughts about the film and its ideas, alternate insights and interpretations, or any other questions any of us have about the film.
Reserve The Tree of Life on DVD and Blu-ray at Redbox.com
There are few films like Tree of Life, but here are others with similar themes and styles from Redbox: