Finding Meaning in “The Tree of Life”
By John C.
Having opened in limited release on June 10th and expanding to the beautiful TIFF Bell Lightbox this past Friday, The Tree of Life is acclaimed director Terrence Malick’s fifth film in nearly forty years. In many ways, it is his most visionary. Watching it is a visually breathtaking and spiritual experience, that manages to evoke feelings in an audience that often times would be lost in translation. Here is a film that moves, inspires and haunts us, connecting everyone through the common unity of existence.
The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job (specifically chapter 38: verses 4 & 7), when God asks, “Where were you when I founded the Earth… while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” In many ways, this simple and haunting question is the axle on which The Tree of Life is based.
Early on, we are told in a whispered voiceover by the motherly Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) that there are two ways through life – the way of nature, and that of grace. Nature will use fierce will to get ahead in the world, where as those who choose grace will allow themselves to live freely, accepting the things they could never change. Our main character, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn as an adult, Hunter McCracken as a child) is at war within himself over these ideas. In the present, he works at a highrise office building in the middle of a bustling city, but as a child grew up amongst white picket fences and sprawling gardens in the seemingly perfect small town of Waco, Texas.
His childhood, and that of his two younger brothers, makes up the majority of the film. Their house is ruled with an iron fist by Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), and we witness Jack’s burgeoning loss of innocence as he struggles the forces, desperately attempting to forge his own way in the world. The O’Briens are not characters in the classic sense of the word, more seeming like a metaphor for every life that undeniably exists at a certain point in time. The father firmly represents the way of nature, the mother that of grace. This family will only be here for a few meager years when measured against that of all existence, but for that short time will be equally important as everyone else.
Their story is shown in a series of brief flashbacks, which often contain little dialogue. Scenes are shown as memories, sometimes hazy, but vividly remembered for the impact they had. With elements that mirror what we know of Malick’s own childhood, perhaps these are his own memories that have been painstakingly recreated. This allows the whole film to feel very circular, both in visual metaphor and narrative structure. It symbolises the similarities between beginning and end, ultimately blurring the line between them in a profoundly reassuring way. Some have viewed the film with a finality, but for me the more evident theme is that of rebirth and finding new beginnings.
Brad Pitt turns in one of his best performances as the father, and Jessica Chastain is a revelation playing the radiant mother. Sean Penn is excellent in a few brief scenes, allowing plenty of time for the young Hunter McCracken to shine as his characters’ youthful counterpart. McCracken displays a range of emotions, delivering a fully nuanced performance that is rarely seen from a child actor. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat is also excellent, beautifully accompanying the classical pieces that memorably play over several crucial scenes.
As I let the power of the visuals wash over me, watching The Tree of Life was ultimately a film experience quite unlike any I’ve ever had. Parts of it could draw comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s great 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Walt Disney masterpiece Fantasia or even the documentary Koyaanisqatsi. Yet Malick’s vision still manages to feel like something wholly original unto itself because he has put so much human emotion into every image.
Like all of Terrence Malick’s films, the cinematography here is breathtaking. His view of even the most simple and mundane things displays a beauty and grace that is rarely seen on such a large scale. It’s as if the director views every image, time and place as equally important, openly giving the audience insight into his own graceful view of the world. So much of Malick’s own vision is on display here, yet the beautiful images often feel like an open canvas onto which the audience is able to project their own feelings, emotions and memories.
Many will see this only for the dramatic portions of the story, but what Malick gives us is a poetic view of existence. There is a spiritual awareness here as it shows us the majesty and mystery of our universe, allowing the audience to watch as events taking place on a large scale will inevitably unite all of us living out our singular lives. Throughout one breathtaking sequence, the audience is shown the creation of life on Earth. On a macro level, we watch as planets move through galaxies, and on a micro level witness the division of cells to create new life. Both symbolize the constant evolution of all living things, visually showing us how everything new is created from a part of something preexisting.
The film’s central metaphor of a tree is one of the most simple and beautiful that it has to offer. A tree will live for many years, existing to witness several generations of family life, with its branches and roots symbolizing the connections we all share to each other. Just as the universe was created at the dawn of existence and continues to move forward in ways both singular and universal, when the tree falls, the seed it leaves behind will spring forth into new life. The Tree of Life provokes deep thought in viewers with this seemingly simple message, reminding us that there have and will continue to be events both big and small to connect us through things beyond our control.
These universal and singular elements at play in both the metaphorical and loosely narrative portions of the film will transcend barriers and become evident in the mixed emotions of audiences. When viewed at a theatre, The Tree of Life will inevitably become a shared experience, with the opportunity to talk about it afterwards. Yet it must always remain a singular experience as those who see the film are guaranteed to react in ways that are shaped by their own beliefs and ideas on where we place in the grand scheme of existence. I do not expect mainstream audiences to fully understand the film and they might even grow impatient with its relaxed pace, but after a single viewing it has already started to mean a great deal to me personally.
The Tree of Life is a singular achievement, a spiritual and visual symphony of breathtaking images that often feel like memories. It is a film that begins and ends within itself, as Malick gives the audience a glimpse into existence through the constraints of a poetic 138-minute running time. Yet it is a film that lasts much longer than that, as it manages to deeply move and even humble us, merely by showing human life as set against the backdrop of created and continuing existence.