Mrs. O'Brien: Nature only wants to please itself. Get 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.~from The Tree of Life (2011)I watched the DVD of Terence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) with my mother, who declared at the beginning of the film: "I hope this is not one of those weird French movies." While not a "French movie" per se, it was what some people would call avant garde, and what others (such as my mom) would describe as disjointed and confusing. There was a lengthy sequence showing volcanoes, suns, stars, jellyfish and dinosaurs, rather like a bizarrely spliced television special by National Geographic. We were about to give up on it, when suddenly we found ourselves in a small southern town in the 1950's at the home of an Irish Catholic family named O'Brien. Since both my mom and I love movies about small southern towns (in any decade) and Irish Catholic families, we decided to persevere to the end.
While hard to follow at times, The Tree of Life is a collage of sin, loss, beauty and redemption, dealing with the struggle between nature and grace, as well as the confrontation between Darwinism and the Christian faith, as experienced by one family. To quote from the Cannes 2011 review in The Guardian:
Terrence Malick's mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship: it's a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love.Steve Greydanus' review brings further coherency to the kaleidoscopic story-telling:
Sean Penn has a central but minor role as Jack, a careworn 21st-century corporate executive who is now disenchanted with his life. At the moment of crisis, he is carried back to an ecstatically remembered 1950s boyhood in smalltown America. He remembers his relationship with his demanding, disciplinarian father, played by Brad Pitt, and the brother who died at the age of 19: the news is brought to his distraught mother (Jessica Chastain) via an official communication – the telegraph delivery boy thrusts it into her hands and walks quickly away – so he appears to have died on military service.
Jack realises that time, far from healing the wounds of loss, only makes them more painful. Along with the dream-lit tableaux from his childhood, he is vouchsafed extraordinary visions of geological time and the unknowable reaches of the universe, in comparison with which his loss is meaningless. And yet meaning has to be found if the pain is not to be unendurable. In a sense, the purpose of these gigantic visions is to anaesthetise the pain of being alive and not understanding.
Brad Pitt dominates the bulk of the film as Mr O'Brien, who appears on the face of it to be a God-fearing family man with a button-down shirt and crewcut, brusquely but sincerely in harmony with his gentle, beautiful and profoundly religious wife. Chastain has a voiceover at the very beginning asking her sons to prefer God's grace to the beauties of nature, as the truer path. But O'Brien is far more complex than first appears: he is angry with his boys; he respects the severity of traditional churchgoing belief, but aspires to riches and worldliness, taking out patents in the aeronautics industry and dissipating the family's means in the process.
He challenges his boys to hit him, to toughen them up, and does not hesitate to hit them for disobedience and discourtesy. He plays the organ in church and is a disappointed musician; his frustration and rage simmer from every pore. His boys feel fear as well as love: Malick shows how they have fused into the same emotion. They are encouraged to respect his violence and secretly to feel contempt for their mother's gentleness....
Occasionally, with certain films, I find it helpful to step back and look through a sociological lens rather than a critical one. For instance, what does the phenomenal success of a film like Titanic tell us about the society that embraces it? With The Tree of Life, I find myself stepping further back, contemplating it through an anthropological lens, as much as an artifact as a work of art. The riddle of existence is not a riddle the universe poses to us, but one we pose to ourselves, as Malick does in The Tree of Life. We are the riddle, and the very fact that we ask the questions we do is one of the best clues we have to the answers we seek.
The questions in The Tree of Life are posed in Malick’s trademark inner monologue voice-overs, with characters carrying on a running cross-examination of God: “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” Early on, a telegram arrives bringing word that one of the O’Brien boys, now 19 and perhaps in the military, has been killed. In a flashback we see the O’Brien brothers as children dealing with the accidental death of a playmate. What sort of God presides over such a world?
The first question, though, comes from God himself. An opening epigraph asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7).
This withering cross-examination, taken from the beginning of God’s response to Job’s complaint, anticipates the film’s most remarkable movement: a lengthy sequence, accompanied by soaring choral work (including Zbigniew Preisner’s Lacrimosa or Requiem), contemplating the formation of galaxies, stars and planets, as well as the origins of life on earth, from microbes to jellyfish to dinosaurs.
The sequence highlights the “tree of life” in the Darwinian sense, a tree whose branches eventually bring together the O’Briens (an earthy Brad Pitt and an ethereal Jessica Chastain) and produce their three boys.
Yet The Tree of Life strains toward something beyond Darwinian ruthlessness. “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life,” Jack’s mother notes in the film’s first minutes, “the way of nature and the way of grace.” Nature “is willful; it only wants to please itself, to have its own way. … It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Grace, by contrast, “doesn’t try to please itself; it accepts being slighted, accepts insults and injuries. … No one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”The final scenes are like a vision or dream sequence in which the grown Jack and his family mystically accept the reality of the death of the youngest brother. It is never clear how he dies and one assumes his is a soldier's death. However, it should be kept in mind that Malick's brother committed suicide in Spain at age nineteen. We do not know if perhaps this happens in the movie and if it is Mr. O'Brien's harshness which leads to the ultimate tragedy. We do see Mrs O'Brien comforted by a woman in white robes (the Virgin Mary?) as she raises her eyes heavenward and says: "I give him to you. I give you my son." The trustful surrender to the will of God is the final triumph of grace.
For Jack O’Brien (played as a boy by terrific newcomer Hunter McCracken and fleetingly seen as an adult played by Sean Penn), his mother represents the way of grace, while his father is the way of nature. Jack’s early life is seen through a scrim of Edenic glory, an aura of bliss and play in which his mother’s joyful personality dominates. Eventually, though, his father’s sternness dominates his life. Mr. O’Brien is the lawgiver: Here is the line between our property and the neighbors’; don’t cross it. You slammed the door; now close it gently 50 times.
Mr. O’Brien says grace at meals, prays in church and mentions tithing every week. Yet his worldview is essentially Darwinian; more than once he tells the boys that you can’t succeed if you’re “too good,” since people will walk all over you. Even his play is Darwinian: He teaches his boys the hand-slapping game and forces them to learn to fight. His real god may be money, and his faith is self-determination. As his professional aspirations slip away from him, he quarrels with his wife and terrorizes his children. When business takes him out of the house, it’s like a holiday for the boys and their mother.
It’s harder to say how Mrs. O’Brien embodies the idea of grace. She’s an archetypal mother, gentle and forgiving, but also passive. When tensions boil over in one excruciating family supper and Mr. O’Brien lashes out at his sons, his wife is unable to protect them or restrain him; instead, he restrains her. It’s queasily persuasive, but we seem to be firmly under the boot of nature, with no sign of the transcendent power of grace.
Young Jack likes his mother better than his father, but as time goes by, he finds more and more in himself what he hates in his father. An inhumane act involving a frog; bullying games with his unprotesting younger brother, whose gentleness mirrors their mother as Jack’s cruelty mirrors their father — these moments sting like guilty childhood memories, all the more in connection with the younger brother, destined to die at 19. (Much of this may be autobiographical; the director grew up in Texas and had a brother who died.)
Malick’s camera wanders and swoops restlessly through these vignettes, capturing moments of power that never coalesce into a narrative or create a sense of characters transcending the individual scenes. The individual moments have only the power of the archetypal situations they evoke. Take any one of them out of the film, watch it in isolation, and it would play exactly the same. (Read more.)