The Tree of Life is only the fifth film in director’s Terrence Malick’s 35-plus year career. Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, it centers on a small-town Texas family growing up during the 1950s, the strained relationship between the father and his children, the family’s coping with the loss of a child, and the more existential questions that arise from these relationships and losses. The film won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Malick doesn’t make small films, and neither does he make easy ones. They’re weighty in subject matter, complex in structure, and sparse on dialogue-as-chatter. That’s not to say that they’re not enjoyable, because they are. But enjoyment doesn’t seem to be his goal in the way that we might generally think of film as a medium for light escape. Malick takes a rather high view of film and spends his time in search of the grandeur that only the art of filmmaking can deliver. They are films that demand thought and intellectual participation from the viewer, and if approached as simply entertainment from a busy day then they will inevitably find a frustrated audience. To be sure, there is a place and a need for those kinds of films. But the viewer who expects both Malick’s and perhaps all films to be of that base level of gratification will end up disappointed and missing out on something more rewarding in its own right.
For with The Tree of Life, Malick attempts no less of an audacious goal then to tackle the meaning of life, our place in the world, and trying to find hope during trials of suffering. And he does it largely through images, the struggles of a single middle-class family, and jumping between modern time, the origin of the cosmos, and 1950s small town Texas. It’s an utterly ridiculous idea when reduced to that inadequate explanation, but in the hands of Malick it becomes something much more mystical.
Using a nuclear family in 1950s Texas as a microcosm for some of the struggles and questions we all wrestle with in this world, we are introduced to the O’Brien family. The father (Brad Pitt) is a driven husband and parent with a tendency to be very demanding on both himself and his family of three boys. He is a product of and evangelist for the American dream and the work ethos it demands. His wife (Jessica Chastain) is much more soft and gentle, balancing home life with her warmth and nurture of her husband and children. The two represent the forces in tension within us and the world: nature and grace. The narration explains that one or the other ends up prevailing in each of us. Nature is driven, demanding, and relentless in its calculated advancing. Grace, however, is always thinking more of others, and without an expectation of return. These ideals war both winthin us and without.
The focus is on the eldest son Jack (played young by Hunter McCracken, and in flash forwards as an adult by Sean Penn) and his relationship to both parents. His struggles with his father are born out of a similar heart, and we are witness to how this shapes both his adolescence and adulthood. These relational barriers also set the stage for how all the members of the family deal with the eventual death of one of the boys.
But this story is told in acts, and inbetween we are treated to scenes that show the creation of the world and primitive dinosaurs roaming the land. The idea is that this isn’t really (just) the story of the O’Briens. This is the story of all of us. It’s been going on since the beginning of time, and we are caught up in a tension that’s much larger than the specifics of just our life or our situation. There are numerous spiritual references throughout the movie, in fact much more than in any of Malick’s past work, beginning with a quote from Job 38:4,7 where God himself responds to Job’s questions – Why is this happening to me? Where is God in my specific time of need? – with not so much a direct answer as some perspective on it: “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?” It’s a bit of a tough pill to swallow, this idea that we are not the world. And the philosophical narrations variously alternate between understanding glimpses of this spiritual conflict and warring with it.