I saw Tree of Life this weekend. I’ve never really been a die-hard fan of Terrence Malick’s work particularly, but the beauty of the trailer paired with the buzz (both positive and negative) at Cannes intrigued me greatly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie like this before. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, not having read any spoilery reviews. As a warning, I will be talking a little bit about things in the narrative, so if you want to be completely untainted by other points of view, come back after you watch it.
Usually after a movie, I post a 140 character review on Twitter, maybe a couple more paragraphs on here, and I’m done. After Tree of Life, I had a sense of “….what just happened?” I didn’t have anything to say immediately, I guess my brain was a scrambled egg. The pacing is slow, the narrative is unconventional, and there’s a 20 minute mini-movie about the origin of life and everything plopped in the middle. I knew I liked it but I couldn’t figure out why immediately afterward.
There’s a lot going on in the film and at times I felt like my tiny caveman brain wasn’t processing it all correctly. With Malick never speaking out about the film, you’re entirely left on your own to draw conclusions, make connections, and basically understand what the hell is going on. The main theme running throughout the film is nature and grace, which is pretty much introduced at the beginning. Most obviously Mrs. O’Brien is grace, and Mr. O’Brien is nature. Water is common throughout the film as well, which I think is a great link to nature and grace. Water is grace because you have to have it to survive. It cleanses, makes you grow, it’s beautiful. Water is nature because it can kill you in an instant. The film opens with the death of the middle son in the O’Brien family, and there’s a fast cut from the reaction of Mrs. O’Brien to rushing, destructive water. There are other cuts to water like this. Several times Mrs. O’Brien washes her feet with hose water, or allows her son to drink from it. Other times Mr. O’Brien will bring Jack to the yard to make him do undesirable yard work, asking why there are brown patches. In one instance, the children go to a pit or public pool to swim with their friends. The fun turns upside down in an instant when one of the friends drowns. The ruthlessness and beauty of water is a great illustration for grace and nature in the film because it’s never one versus the other, it’s how it ebbs and flows.
The 20 minute or so breakaway from the regular narrative is intriguing. There’s no warning that this is coming so if you had no idea, I think it would take you off-guard completely. I mean, there are freakin’ dinosaurs in this thing. But it works. To open a film with the death of a child, seemingly the worst thing that could ever happen, then jump back to put it all in perspective, sets a certain outlook on life and death. And a particularly touching moment between two dinosaurs occurs on screen as well – one dinosaur (I assume) showing mercy or compassion to another, more vulnerable dinosaur. I’ve never thought about dinosaurs interacting like this before, and it makes you think a little more about how these amoebas that came forth on the screen could turn into organisms that not only interact, but actually care about one another. And then eventually other organisms form a society and create a war that eventually leads to the death of your child.
The other big piece of the film to me personally was theology vs the universe, or the framing of human emotion and feeling within the universe. I’m positive a religious person would find a different interpretation of the presentation of “god” or “gods” within the film. As a nonreligious person, I felt like there was a direct comparison between the vastness of the universe compared with the incapability of a human being to understand it, therefore calling it god. Throughout the film, the characters contemplate or call out to a “god”, and the contrast between their words and the imagery of the vastness of space and time made it seem to me that in our existence, we struggle as human beings to put it all together and make sense of our origin, but really we just lack the ability to ever grasp eternity and infinity. I felt that the juxtaposition between the characters calling out to god and the opening Bible quote to the origin of life and relative insignificance of the O’Briens makes the case against divine intervention.
My takeaway from the film came down to feeling utterly insignificant, yet utterly significant. At once, the origin of space, time, and all beings in our universe compared to 1950s small-town Texas seems to make everything I’ve ever felt or done so insignificant. The death of the son in the grand scheme of things is meaningless, it changed nothing. The blip of life of this family is over in an instant. The asteroid that destroyed all of life on our Earth was even portrayed as small rather than huge and apocalyptic. The moments in the film are tiny and compared to everything that had to happen to lead up to them, seem unimportant. Yet, at the same time you feel so important. All of those things in the universe and evolution had to happen in order for you to feel an emotion or a touch. Human emotion and relationships are all we have and what our life comes down to and that makes them big. The look shared between two people, the feeling of running through a field on a summer evening, the regret a child feels when they do something wrong, the yearning one feels when they’re being replaced. The dynamic of the O’Brien family runs the gamut of emotions that a normal family can go through in a lifetime, without any huge conflict or action. They are basically just a regular nuclear family – the gentle mother, the favorite child, the slighted older child who gets stuck doing all the crap work, the father with the high hopes for himself that fall through – the book of patents, the musical ability, the salesman vibe – and ultimately get passed to a child. And yet, you feel captivated by their existence.
There’s a lot to feel in Tree of Life. I felt a bit at times like Malick managed to pull human emotions I had forgotten about out and stick them into these tiny moments – the feelings only a child can feel, or the feelings only an adult can feel. It was odd to “feel” so much during a film, which is difficult to explain. I felt at times like I was a 10 year old in my tiny hometown again, feeling angry at my dad for making me do yardwork, or biking down the street on a cool summer evening. There’s a complexity to these emotions that can’t be fully described in a sentence. And then we grow up and have to deal with our baggage, as Jack grows up and reflects upon his life as a successful architect while he remembers his brother on the day of his death. Jack’s adult life is surrounded by metal structures reaching toward the sky, buildings on buildings. His world is filled with upward shots that take in the structures, while his childhood is spent in greenery and trees. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of this world with Jack’s childhood, and especially the evolution of Earth. No matter how big we make our world, nothing can compare to the big bang. We continue to build bigger and higher objects to reflect the beauty of the world, but nothing can match the scale of the stars.
I’m still pondering the end of the film, which didn’t seem as strong to me as the rest of it. But I suppose when you start at the beginning (like, the BEGINNING of the beginning), where DO you end? I assume it was an interpretation of the afterlife, but perhaps not literally. Figuratively saying good-bye to a loved one who has died a tragic death and letting the world move forward in its nature and grace as it’s going to anyway is something everyone has to do at some point, so as humans we create a perfect picture of the afterlife in our acceptance of death. The final image of the film seems to go along with the grace and nature and water and continual evolution of humankind themes.
From a technical standpoint, the film was brilliant. The editing was perfect and the cinematography was stunning. The warmth, backlighting, and lens flares of the childhood home contrasted with the slightly blue, bright, sharpness of the modern world was stark. The performances were great, especially the child playing Jack who I believe is the main character of the story (Hunter McCracken). I’d heard he hadn’t acted at all before, and I hope to see him in other films. Brad Pitt is also perfect as a man who never fulfills the potential he sets for himself. At times you feel like he’s going to be the big bad father guy, but he never becomes that abusive figure – he loves his children, but his idea of raising them is more harsh than his wife. Jessica Chastain is also great as Mrs. O’Brien, particularly her reaction to her son’s death at the beginning, and her nymph-like interactions with the children.
Ultimately, The Tree of Life is a history of life, the universe, and humankind as reflected by one family. Life, death and everything in between, and the meaning of it all. I really enjoyed it (moreso after 24 hours of stewing on it) and I think most people should see it, whether they actually like it or hate it. I’ve never written so much about a film, let alone an analysis of one, so you know it scrambled my brain up.