Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
So here's the thing. If you've been reading reviews of writer-director Terrence Malick's years-in-the-making THE TREE OF LIFE, you've probably seen critics tripping over themselves attempting to interpret what the film and its characters represent. Is this Malick's attempt to confirm his atheism by showing up evolution and dinosaurs? Or is this a lesson on God versus darker influences on our lives beginning as children? I've read words like "grace" tossed around this film as often as words like "surreal," "impressionistic" and "existential." Everyone thinks they've got it figured out, or at least is going to attempt to convince you that they do. But here's the truth: they're all wrong. And in equal measure, they are all right.
And that's because THE TREE OF LIFE is a film that cannot be pinned down to any one explanation or meaning. It's a film meant to wash over you and leave you thinking about it days or weeks after you've seen it. But most of all, it's a work left deliberately vague so that discussion will ensue after it's been viewed. Those are my favorite kinds of film. When I hear someone tell me a day or two after they've seen a thought-provoking film that they still don't know what they thought of it, my response is always some variation of, "The fact that you're still thinking about it probably means you liked it." Not always the case, I know, but I think that's usually right.
While others may search for deeper meaning in THE TREE OF LIFE, on my first viewing I chose to take the film at face value, and it certainly works on both levels. But even if you end up giggling a bit at the presence of dinosaurs here, there is no denying that this is a story about family and how the relationship (or lack thereof) with our parents molds us with a relentless fire.
The family in question is the O'Briens, living in Texas during the 1950s, a time considered by many to be America's last Golden Age, although no one in this family would probably agree with you. Mr. & Mrs. O'Brien (a relentless Brad Pitt and almost angelic Jessica Chastain) are raising three sons. But when we meet them, they have lost a child, presumably to war. And it's at this point where the inevitability of this moment in time becomes clear.
Without any real explanation why (that's a good thing), Malick transports is back to the beginning of time, to the Big Bang and continues on to trace the history of the earth and of humankind straight back to when the O'Brien children were younger and all alive, being raised by a stern but loving father and a mother that was sometimes permissive to a fault. THE TREE OF LIFE is not a traditionally constructed story, so much as it is a series of moments in the life of young Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken), who is briefly seen as an adult played by Sean Penn.
For some reason, I couldn't help but equate the relationship between Jack and his father to that of Bruce Springsteen's best-known, on-stage stories about his tumultuous emotional connection to his dad. He claims at one time to have hated his father, but it's clear that as he got older, being a success in his father's eyes was paramount. Jack (like the other O'Brien boys) is clearly scared of his dad, but doing well and being recognized by his fathers seems to be the thing Jack strives for.
Most of you will likely recognize the version of Mr. O'Brien that Pitt gives us. The world has wronged him in so many ways, and the only place he has to vent that frustration and anger is in the direction of his family. But O'Brien isn't a bad man; we see what is worth admiring and loving about him. In may ways, he's a weak man in the body of a strong one.
And then there's Mrs. O'Brien. If her husband represents forcing their children to grow up before their time, then she embodies the very essence of staying a child for as long as one can. When dad travels, it's like the circus comes to town in their tiny home. The kids (with mom right there with them) are free to run around, slam doors and play--a sharp contrast to the life lessons about fighting, manners and hard work that dad embraces. It's difficult to tell if mom is as scared of Mr. O'Brien as the kids are; he rarely aims his intimidation in her direction. But there is something off about her, and I couldn't help but think that she probably had a father much like her husband, so she is just better at handling him.
What's particularly fascinating about the way this story is told is that we're seeing everything from Jack's perspective. It's as if the film isn't meant to be an accurate account of the events as they took place. Instead, we're getting flashes of a very limited world as seen through this child's eyes. When you are young, your world doesn't often extend past your front lawn and your school. But when I was growing up, I remember school being like a vacation and home being the real world. And that's the marvelous thing about THE TREE OF LIFE--it forces you to think in those terms. It's greatest gift is its universality. Most everyone will find some element in this movie that will trigger a flood of emotions and scattered memories.
I'm not convinced God figures into this film at all. Would you find it weird that in the audience I saw this film with were a priest and a nun? That sounds like the set up to a bad joke: "A priest and a nun go to a Terrence Malick movie..." That said, there are large heaps of spirituality as far as the eye can see. It's clear that life and evolution and natural science (as well as his ever-present nature) are Malick's religion and that he gets a spiritual rapture from simply contemplating them. I can't think of another filmmaker who embraces pure existence as much as Malick.
Malick also manages to evoke the air and heat and grass and trees of the O'Brien's yard and neighborhood. At many points in the film, the camera feel like it's floating on the wind. These may be idealized versions of nature (again, as remembered by Jack), but when you contrast them with the few shots of Jack (as played by Penn, who unfortunately barely registers in this film due to lack of screentime) later in life, surrounded by cold skyscrapers in some unnamed metropolis, you start to crave that smalltown version of nature.
THE TREE OF LIFE is not a simple, straight-forward work, but it's not confusing or so intent on being different that it makes it impossible to understand. My advice is to let the images take hold, and don't worry so much about piecing them together or attempting to interpret them until the film is done. My guess is that your analysis will never quite be complete until you see it a second time. You will absolutely take something away from The Tree of Life, and that doesn't happen nearly enough in movies any more. Cherish the moment.
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