All this useless pondering: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life – 2011

Written and Directed by Terrance Mallick

Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Joanna Going, Hunter McCracken

 

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.
Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.
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.
The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. ”  Mrs. O’Brien
The Tree of Life is a movie that one can love, disdain, or both.  The movie starts off with an adult Jack O’Brien (Penn) suffering to resolve the life and death of his brother, as well as the seemingly divergent lives of his father and mother.  We see Jack ambling wordlessly through the city in which he lives.  Then we see him wandering aimlessly through unlivable terrain.  Then things start to get weird.  From the very first scene, which, we presume, is Jack’s existence in the cosmos, we move on to see the creation of the universe.  From here, we see Earth, its formation, and development.  It stops for a second, on dinosaurs.  We see a timid Elasmosaurus, wandering carefully through the forest, well aware of the danger that surrounds it.  Forward a short time, and the Elasmosaurus lay on the side of a river bank with a giant wound on its side.  A predator Parasaurolophus happens upon the dinosaur, literally stands over its potential prey, and ponders it for a second then moves on.  Was it the chaos of grace, in the order of nature?
...I want to welcome you...to the world

At this point, we finally land on somewhat of a straightforward narrative.  Jack is born, and through a series of images, we see him develop from a carefree little boy, through the bumps of jealousy when his brother is born, and then, still mostly happy, into the cusp of his teenage years.  We see the two ideas mentioned in the voice over by Mrs. O’Brien take root and have real consequences in the life of young Jack (McCracken).  The happiness Jack and his brothers feel around their mother (who chooses grace) is offset by the rigidity and joylessness they experience in the form of their father (guess who’s left to portray nature).  Each parent has their reasons for being who they are, but Jack does not know this.  He only knows how he feels when faced with both.  He loves his mother more, of course.  Yet still the looming presence and authority of his father.

“Your mother’s naive. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, people take advantage of you. ”

...There will be days and nights...

Mr. O’Brien

Also there, not so loudly, are his two younger brothers, his middle brother, in particular.  As Jack develops, we see him changing.  His adverse reaction to his father is mirrored by his own discovery that he is beginning to develop characteristics which, to him, are just like his father.  As his father demands pleasure, in the form of subservience and obedience of his own children, Jack begins to mix his feelings of love for his mother, with his burgeoning desires of puberty as well as his own demands that his middle brother show Jack the devotion  and trust that he is being pushed to show by his father.
“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” Mrs. O’Brien
These things come to a head one summer when his father goes off to pursue the remnants of his own dream for himself and the family.  As all the boys celebrate their freedom, Jack, who thought he would never be so happy, slowly becomes more miserable.  He pushes the envelope on all of his worst impulses, finally causing both his mother and his some significant pain, which he will not get into trouble for, but will suffer for nonetheless.  Upon the return of his father, he is in much turmoil.  His rage is matched only by his remorse, creating an even greater confusion.  His father, facing yet another disappointment in life, sees clearly for perhaps the first time in his life.
“I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.” – Mr. O’Brien
Jack, facing a meltdown from the two seemingly opposite natures of grace and nature, is given a break.  He is shown love by his father.  I won’t tell you how, but the effect brings me to tears even a day later, as I write this.
“You’re all I have. You’re all I want to have. You’re a sweet boy. ” Mr. O’Brien
Brother, Mother, Jack

From here, for some reason, the answer takes years for the adult Jack to arrive at.  His wanderings are over and he finds a place where life can exist. For all its meanderings and incomplete images, The Tree of Life is remarkably easy to comprehend.  One can see the point that Mallick is attempting to make, even if he clouds this message with things, like the entire universe.  His view is as exaggerated as any child’s might be, even if he is well into his adult years when he is victim to them.  It is here where one can question his decisions.  Without the meandering of Penn as the adult Jack, the movie is quite complete.  Why is this crisis hitting him in his late middle age, when his brother died half of his own life ago?  Is this the time when his mother dies?   There are many indications that his mother had an extremely hard time coming to terms with her second son’s death. We don’t see her age very much beyond his brother’s demise, so one could guess is that it might be that middle age Jack is reconciling with everything at the time when his father passes.

Father begins to change his mind...
The bulk of the narrative is a complete message in and of itself.  It is here where The Tree of Life really shines.  Brad Pitt has never been so effective and deserves to be nominated for his layered, evolving performance.  McCracken is an absolute find as young Jack.  His portrayal, too, moves from the bastion of innocence to the cusp of evil, all with the heart of “a sweet boy.”  Chastain is exactly what she needs to be.
Mallick is a visionary of epic proportions, but is most effective in his capture of the details of life in a small town.  Yes, one can see the connection between the two, it just does not seem so necessary.  The resulting frustration, no doubt, will throw many off.  If they give up, they will lose out.  Mallick shows the ability of a true master here, and he uses darkness, light, sight and sound as if he invented them…and as if he is dependent on them.  He will be nominated for best director, and perhaps best film.  If ever there was an example of overreach and subtlety occupying the same space, here it is.  The darkness presented by the scenes with Sean Penn are unnecessary, to be sure, but if you take the film on the, it is but a blip in time, which to Mallick, might be the point.
For those who choose to look for the daylight, they shall be rewarded.  The movie shows that any life without love is unsatisfying, and one doesn’t need to create a universe to find this.  A trip to Waco, Texas in the 1950’s will do.
(****1/2 out of *****)

 

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8 thoughts on “All this useless pondering: The Tree of Life

    1. Believe me, I can totally understand why you say that. Even my wife told me that the experience will be different for many women as men. I know it touched me deeply at points, and made me chagrin at others. Thank you very much for reading, though.

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