The Tree of Life

Visual Studies Professor Mette Hjort has said that film has “an extraordinary capacity to expand our reality, to deepen our moral sensibility, and to shape our self-understanding by moving us closer to…realities that are distant from those we know well.” In his latest unconventional masterpiece, The Tree of Life, director Terence Malick has opened our vision to the untranslatable miracle of life in all its aspects. No other film has so preoccupied itself with the process of learning about the world, from the infant’s first discovery of his ability to touch, to the stirrings of language, to the ability to discern differences, and ultimately to questioning where God lives and how life began.

Malick posits the central dilemma of existence as he sees it from a Judeo-Christian outlook. How can one reconcile the love of God with the pain and suffering we experience on Earth? Opening the film is a quote from the Book of Job with God answering Job’s question about suffering, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” As in Malick’s previous work, there is little dialogue. Voices are internal, whispered, and often barely audible. As the film opens, Jack (Sean Penn), an architect locked in glass towers seems to have lost his connection to the world.

Lost and lonely, he looks into himself and rediscovers the innocence of a young boy living in rural Texas in the 1950s with his cookie-cutter’s house situated in a typical suburban environment - houses without locks, neatly-trimmed lawns with sprinklers, streams accessible from one’s backyard, and an overriding feeling of comfort. His parents, known only as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), represent the struggle between” nature” and “grace”, grace being the Dasein (being) in Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” and what Malick calls “nature”, the ego, the self-involved force that obscures our experience of who we really are.

Reflecting Malick’s dichotomy, Mrs. O’Brien is a perfect example of the female capacity for nurture, a mother of tenderness and understanding, telling the boys that love is all that matters in the world. She asks them, in Werner Erhard’s phrase, “to make their love for the world be what their lives are really about.” In a tender scene, she reaches her hands in the air to find a butterfly sitting gently on it. After the sudden death of their 19-year-old son, questions are heard but it is unclear to whom they are addressed: How did you come to me? What disguise? How did I lose you? Did you know? Who are we to you? When did you first touch my heart?"

Malick moves from Jack’s recollection of his own birth and the birth of his brothers to a brilliant kaleidoscope of the world’s creation and evolution, engineered to perfection by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in collaboration with special effects consultants Dan Glass and Douglas Trumble. To a gorgeous choral soundtrack, we see everything from the Big Bang to a large dinosaur stomping on the head of a smaller one in the forest, then staring at him with compassion. Malick’s process is mirrored in both the microcosm and the macrocosm.

The family scenes in Texas, perhaps a recollection of the emotions that the director felt as a child, are shown only in fleeting images: running, climbing, dancing, and singing that wondrously match the splendor of the universe with the joy of childhood. The three brothers establish a close relationship and we see the world from their perspective. In 1950s mold, however, Mrs. O’Brien does not challenge her husband, a disappointed musician who takes out his bitter frustration on his children, the perfect reflection of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy.

Though he is loving and even playful at times, Mr. O’Brien believes that strength is the single most important attribute you need to make your way in the world. He goads the boys to hit him in the face with their fists and, in almost military fashion, he tells them never to call him dad, but only father and to answer his questions with “yes sir” and no sir.” The film mostly centers around the stormy father-son relationship between Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his father, the same Jack seen at the beginning of the film 40 years later, still looking for love.

When his father has been particularly rough on him, Jack tells him, "It's your house—you can kick me out whenever you want," then under his breath whispers, "You'd like to kill me." Eager to please his father, he acts out in aggressive ways, breaking into a neighbor’s house and stealing her nightgown, throwing rocks through the window of an abandoned house, and shooting his little brother in the finger, an act he later tearfully apologizes for.

Though I was not always emotionally engaged and I found the ending somewhat prosaic, The Tree of Life is, on the whole, a beautiful, multi-layered, and deeply spiritual film that asks the hard questions, a film that everyone will respond to differently depending on their own experience. To me, it says that the representation of reality that we see is a function of our own consciousness, that God is not an anthropomorphic perfection of ourselves, but lies within us, in our capacity for joy, compassion, and love and our realization that, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, “There is no I nor thou, but only one divine Self equal in all embodiments.”

©2011 Howard Schumann
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