The Tree of Life mysteriously opens with a wavering, unsubstantial light. Accompanied by eerie music, lilting music, you enter Terrence Malick’s latest movie. The Tree of Life is a film experience, worth enjoying like a good wine, an afternoon with a lover, or a vast panorama after a long climb. The film spoke to me particularly, as it went through both the two things that remain with me from my childhood–the real-life tribulations of growing up in a difficult setting, and the vast internal imaginative resources that still are with me today. Structured like a prayer, the movie walks through an almost non-linear sequence of events, beginning and culminating in the strange, wavering light.
“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?” Job 38:4,7
The director, Terrence Malick, is well known for his masterful films. As the mind behind Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, he’s a particular favorite of mine, and I walked into the movie expecting to be wowed similarly. While I had a great experience, the director’s style is simply confusing in this movie. Don’t get me wrong–it’s beautiful, deeply touching and thoughtful, and wonderful; but it left me with many questions, and if any film could be described as ‘impressionistic’ this definitely fits the bill. The movie won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and has received high critical acclaim–though, admittedly, a lot of confusion form audiences and unclear overall audience satisfaction.
Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn) is a disillusioned adult. Though surrounded by success and all the modern comforts of the early 21st century, he is upset, angry, unable to find happiness. His life seems barren and empty, as emphasized by set design and filmography of scenes involving him. In long recollections, he tells the story of his childhood. His complicated relationship with his father, his adoration of his mother, his brothers and friends and their misadventures, and foremost, the loss of his older brother. The film is laid out with a prayer, with many of the main characters directly addressing god. As an atheist, this at first made me somewhat uncomfortable–but the film was particularly lack in giving any clear ‘answers’ or providing any direction in regards to what their praying did. Furthermore, the one time they did elaborate on one of the character’s prayers (“How did we get here?”) they showed a vast backdrop starting from the Big Bang all the way up to the development of life, dinosaurs, mammals…giving a sense that the questions we ask of a higher power are simply beyond human understanding.
I connected with the film especially in its regard to the relationship portrayed between Jack and his father. Jack’s father is a hard-working man, brilliant in his own right, but struggles to find success. He also battles with his own difficulty in connecting and loving his sons–he must be harsh and hard with his sons to prepare them for the world. Again, the film is lacking on specifics, but it appears that towards the end of his life, Jack has reconnected with his father–but it gives him no satisfaction or deep happiness.
The final scenes of the film show Jack reuniting with his family in the midst of a sandy beach, where other people mill endlessly. He comforts his mother, and his younger brothers and self, and finally his father. Standing on the beach at twilight, the movie ends with his life essentially having flashed before your eyes. Ultimately, Malick’s portrayal of Jack O’Brien’s trials, tribulations, and final end meet with my critical acclaim. It was an incredible experience–unlike any other movie I’ve seen–and while it didn’t leave me reeling in so much wonder as, say, The Fountain did, it certainly left me with a deeper understanding of how the story of our lives unfold, and how our families define our person more than we expect.