Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life was thought-provoking. A lot was about “mother”—idealized. Most was about grief and a family (the O’Briens) coping with the death of one of the kids—the youngest nineteen year old. Cause of death was not stated. Sadness permeated the movie. It was told in a dreamy, fluid way, like dance choreography, for the shots themselves (the cinematography) reflected stream of consciousness, and in that fluid stream, the disjointed images and thoughts of the mind—how the mind shifts constantly to something else. This parallelism between mind and imagery was captured through shots of tumbling water, soaring trees, landscapes, shards of family memories, and then, spirituality—this last in the form of an amorphous, diaphanous light glowing perpetually through organic tissue of an orange color that changed in hues as the skins and folds of organic mass moved, as if undulating in water or the womb. The immovable glow at the core represented God, or so I interpreted it. God for the narrator, the God we talk to within ourselves. That alone was food for thought sparked by the movie.
Could the spirituality component of the movie remain as strong if the Creation story had been edited out?—the universe, the Big Bang, the start of Planet Earth, first organisms, water creatures, dinosaurs, man, the family? The answer is yes. Using just the white light within the organic mass to symbolize one’s personal God was an effective liet motif. For this viewer, including the rest of the spiritual material was not a huge flaw of the movie, particularly given the parents’ religious adherence. It seemed an unnecessary addition, stand-alone material that didn’t impact the main content, and thus was superfluous. Brad Pitt’s performance as Mr. O’Brien was excellent. Jessica Chastain’s “mother” was too idealized and ethereal to be convincing as a flesh and blood human, but the actress amply fulfilled the role written for her.
The film made us think on many levels. For one, how laughter fills life at first and then gets sucked away because of troubled relationships. And the message of: all families are more or less the same. Generally, mothers are idealized angels and fathers (even when “great”) are tyrants. The innate meanness in many kids was shown through the protagonist Jack (Hunter McCracken) and neighborhood boys and their pranks. And yet, at the same time, an uncommon degree of sympathy, empathy was present in the O’Brien family characters, torturing them. An American childhood fifty years ago, in a pre-computer age, integrated with nature, and toys and games depended on imagination. Juxtaposed to this early freedom in nature with constant reference to trees reaching into the sky is Jack’s later career amid high-end architecture—gleaming surfaces, soaring steel structures with sharp geometry, not a tree in sight. Notwithstanding the loss of physical nature, the tree of life remains firmly rooted within each of us, for it embodies family, our origins, and the origins of human existence in the universe.
As for sound, it’s interesting that film, a visual medium, depends on sound for its full effect. Here, the muffled, whispered, murmured voices worked brilliantly, for that is how we dream and even remember. Try to hear the conversations playing while you drift off to sleep—they are indistinct. Someone’s flowing dialogue can be detected just out of earshot, the words obviously articulated with diction, but indecipherable. This is Jack’s story about being his father’s eldest son, so his despairing voice questions existence the most. His parents’ voice overs also come in sharing their perspectives.
Spiritually infused, choral-like music by Alexandre Desplat augments the film’s overarching theme of family grief. It contributed to the haunting quality of the film, how individuals are always haunted by their pasts—why our natural laughter slowly becomes somber, even depressed. Towards the end the music was heavy-handed and risked creating sentimentality.
As the audience, we were always objective, never pulled into the story and experiencing it firsthand, partly because it wasn’t a story but more of a meditation, or multi-tiered reflection choreographed in film art. We watched and considered ideas and themes as we went along. The limited dialogue gave space for that medium. It was a visual treatise on family grief, a cinematic treatment of human emotional states bottled up inside that finally find an art-outlet. What has been stuffed for most of a lifetime thus finds air at last and becomes open for discussion, a process which allows the grief and emotional stuff to be finally buried or put to rest—what we call “closure” today. The end of the movie symbolized this outcome, for late middle-aged Jack (who has ruminated this film-treatise over the course of one day, perhaps the anniversary of this youngest brother’s death) speaks to his father over the phone in one scene, and we catch only fragments of the words—Yes, I think of him every day—an admittance that opens the door for atonement, redemption, and inner peace, or at least a kind of acceptance. Older Jack (played by Sean Penn) imagines all the characters from his nature-infused childhood—family, boyhood friends—and love is shared among all on the landscape of an infinite beach or desert. In this last scene his father, in particular, has been freed to express his unfettered love. The strict rules that have governed his life dissolve. All is forgiven. The mother’s message earlier on that life is only bearable if there is love, is demonstrated in this scene, this grand finale of love, compassion, and forgiveness.
As the audience, I felt the forgiveness was as important for making life bearable as the love. But then, forgiveness and love are bound together in the realm of an individual’s innate spiritual core. It may have been that older Jack’s mother was already dead by the time of the movie, for we see her in a shrouded, floral-decorated funeral bier several times. Earlier on, she and her husband light a blue candle after the death of their son, and on the day that the film takes place, with older Jack remembering the past, including his mother’s bier, the blue candle reappears several times, and his father phones him, eliciting the response: Yes, I think of him every day. These images and murmurings suggest the death-anniversary, and in the end what becomes Jack’s day of reckoning, setting things right in the complex family relationships and history. This is not a mainstream film, it’s a thinking film handled with artistic beauty and pathos. It may fall short of being a masterpiece, but its rank is high, its power long-lasting.