By Janine Gericke.
A tree has wide spread roots – thousands of forking lines that twine into a long straight trunk – and branches, which themselves twine up and away toward the sun. And that is the very structure of the story elements woven into Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. This deeply moving and experimental film opens by flitting through scattered, wildly mixed fragments and vignettes – ranging from the formation of the earth to the evolution of protozoa and the demise of the dinosaurs – before settling into the cohesive story of a Texan family in the 1950s. The film follows the life of a young boy, his nurturing, loving mother, his militant, difficult father and his two younger brothers. As the central story closes, the film branches out again into another series of startlingly diverse scenes contrasting the end of one human life with the death of our planet. Throughout the film, these vignettes are meticulously broken down into fractal narratives that mimic the relationships and interactions within the central storyline.
The Tree of Life opens with tragedy. Some time, somewhere in the mid 1960s, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram notifying her of the death of one of her sons, and crumples to the floor in grief. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) receives the same news via telephone, and the shock on his face is palpable as the news settles in. Through tilting and swinging camerawork, these scenes of grief constantly shift focus from the characters to the sun, as though the camera was a compass needle, consistently drawn to magnetic north. These heliotropic scenes bleed together to introduce Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), a grief worn, despondent architect amidst modern Houston’s skyscrapers. His surroundings of steel and glass in many ways mirror the life of his engineer father, who surrendered his one passion, music, to devote his professional life to an order and rigidity that drowned his soul. Through Jack – presumably through his reminiscences – we are introduced to life in the O’Brien family in the suburbs of 1950s Waco, Texas. It’s Jack’s own apparent introspection that launches the sweeping sequences of the birth of life on earth. These images, along with the powerful score composed by Alexander Desplat are overwhelming in the best possible way.
As the earth cools, spawns life, and evolves, the film returns to Waco, Texas, and follows the pre-teen life of Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken). We witness Jack’s birth and his father’s amazement at the sight of his firstborn child. Through graceful images, we are shown Jack’s first steps, first words, and first impressions of his baby brother, R.L. However, these childhood scenes – in fact all lightness in the film – weighs heavily with foreboding for the tragedy to come.
Jack’s mother is, in Jack’s memories, very loving, nurturing, graceful and fun. Almost all of his infant memories center on her. Jack’s memories of his father are uncomfortable. His father is a disciplinarian, who demands to be called Father – never Dad. He is a man of order and perfection and looks to imprint this onto his sons. The only time we see the father soften is when he’s playing music, a passion he shares with R.L. alone. The father pushes the boys to be stronger, to be tougher, to always fight for the things they want in life. But he never seems more proud than when he sees the tenderness and light in R.L. – when R.L. refuses to be tough, refuses to fight, and embraces warmth, music and light. By contrast, Jack plays the dutiful son, following his father’s footsteps. In so doing, he receives his father’s anger, contempt and disdain. When Jack does bad things, he acts without reason – he is cruel and rebellious in the traditional sense, and this only leads him to mirror his father’s sorry life. In contrast, R.L. only does what is right – what he knows to be kind and generous and true. This generates a tremendous amount of tension in the relationship between the two boys – the tension between doing what you’re told and doing what’s right.
This is the central tension of the film: the struggle between fighting for survival and fighting for what’s right. The Tree of Life is a stunning and intricate film that begs to be deconstructed and discussed. It is unlike anything that I’ve seen, and begs to be watched, shared and absorbed. Go, watch it, and give yourself plenty of time to digest.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.