The Tree of Life might not be the most popular of nominees, but that doesn’t make it any less great. It is a movie, made with a certain tenderness and attention. A movie that tries to wrestle with convoluted philosophical topics and succeeds, if viewed with an open mind. It’s not to say that I have a complete understanding of its message. The movie fluctuates, confounds and intrigues the viewer with mundane everyday experiences that somehow connect to mystical and spiritual enlightenment. It provides solace, compassion and insight into the always existent job-like suffering and existential confusion that we all struggle with.
“There are two ways through life. The way of nature. And the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow”. This is the quote that starts off the film, and lays the foundation for what follows. The film focuses on a small family from Texas, and the struggles they endure. Mrs. O’Brian (Jessica Chastain), the mother, embodies the spirit of grace, which constitutes love, compassion and forgiveness as primary virtues. Even though, during the movie, she seems almost saint-like, her spirit comes under a great deal of turmoil when one of her three sons dies. Mr. O’Brian(Brad Pitt), on the other hand, lives his life with an intense respect for self-determination, hard-work and a cynical unforgiving view of other people.”Your mother’s naïve. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good; people will take advantage of you.” He often expresses this stance by indulging in angry outbursts and by placing strict punishments on his three children. His deferred dream of becoming a musician has left him ashamed and resentful toward the world. The film attempts to place the father’s cynicism in an unfavorable light, by showing the happiness and joy that the spirit of grace can bring, but, to its credit, sympathizes and understands his exact problems. “Nature only wants to please itself. Gets 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.”
The mother and father’s disputes put enormous strain on Jack, the oldest of the three children. In the film, he is portrayed as a confused teenager (Hunter McCracken) and as a disillusioned adult (Sean Penn). His whispered questioning of morality and the existence of god are sprinkled throughout the movie and express a great deal of angst. He experiences feelings of anger, hate and resentment towards his father, who he views as a cruel. His acts of rebellion are acts that are clearly made out of a sense of helplessness.
There isn’t too much of a plot to The Tree of Life. It more or less gives viewers a looking glass into the sometimes petty anxieties or fears that ordinary human beings have, and contrasts them with the idea of a peace and love which can only be achieved by understanding and forgiveness. This god, however, is often blamed for his seemingly never-ending cruelty and mystery. In the movie, a young boy drowns while swimming in the river and Jack is left to ask, “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When you aren’t.” Through all this confusion, Jack finally finds love utilizing acceptance, forgiveness and understanding. Even though this movie has a happy ending, it does not leave one with any easy answers.
Another important part of the movie is the creation of the universe. During this long scene, one sees a portrayal of how the universe was created. The big bang, cells dividing, the heavens appearing and dinosaurs roaming the earth are all part of this process. These scenes are gorgeous to witness and provide a grand mystical environment to the otherwise encaged environment of the O’Brian’s. Interestingly enough, most of the visuals were created not by CGI, but by simple materials such as paint, smoke and different types of lighting. These scenes are indeed experimental, but they are utilized well to help develop the themes of the movie.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is indeed the personal and impressionistic work of a master. He lives up to the work of his previous films such as Badlands and The Thin Red Line. One strong point of the film is its ability to avoid self-righteousness and to invoke thought. It might not be for everybody, considering its slow pace and somewhat odd direction, but for those willing to wait, The Tree of Life is certainly worth the watch.