Diving back into ‘The Tree of Life’ (SPOILERS)

Posted by · 1:51 pm · May 27th, 2011

If you’ve been fortunate enough to catch Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” in its limited release already, don’t forget to tell us your thoughts in the reactions thread.

I’ve written about the film at length once (during a lunch break at jury duty downtown after sleeping on it). Guy reviewed it in full out of Cannes, where the film walked away with the Palme d’Or, and we dedicated an edition of The Lists to Malick’s work earlier this week. But I wanted to include a separate space for spoiler discussion, as I’ve had a chance to re-visit the film and taken some time to mull over its particulars more over the last week. I guess I just really wanted to write about it again.

So, if you want to stay pure, I suggest staying out of this thread. I’ll be digging into specifics of narrative and theme that you’d probably rather avoid. Or maybe you’d like to digest every morsel you can in preparation. Fully up to you, but the warning is there. SPOILERS follow…

I figure the best way to come at this is beginning to end, as it comes to me. So forgive the rambling, but I’m kind of delighting in navigating the various hills and crevices of this work.

The first thing that struck me on second look was that the film is very much about contradiction. You’ll recall I noted in my initial take that I felt it dealt with the idea of nature AND grace as opposed to nature VERSUS grace. The opening narration of the film notes that you have to choose which path you’ll take through life, but I don’t think Malick ever fully damns one path over the other. Each has its virtues and, in the end, the discovery, the revelation, is that the synergy of both can’t be avoided.  Indeed, “fierce will” and “love” are equally important.

The first section of the film conveys a death in the O’Brien family, the middle brother, R.L., played in youth by Laramie Eppler. (Eppler, by the way, was actually Malick’s second choice for the role of Jack, the oldest brother and the character I’d call the lead of the piece). A telegram is delivered to Jessica Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien. The visceral nature of her performance in this instant, that guttural agony, is wrenching.

Subtle visual cues tell us it’s probably later in the 1960s when Mrs. O’Brien gets the telegram and calls her husband with the news. Soon enough it’s settled when we’re told, through narration from the adult Jack (played by Sean Penn), that R.L. was 19 when he died. It’s interesting because it’s a time uncovered elsewhere in the film. I suppose there is footage lying around that carried into the 1960s, but Malick has left us with this abstraction, and it could be better for it.

In any case, R.L. is depicted in youth as the more docile of the two brothers (while a third brother is largely left on the cutting room floor, it appears). “You callin’ me a liar,” Jack asks him in a random bit of provocation (which signifies his own aggressive maturity). “I don’t want to fight,” R.L. replies. “You scared?” “No. Just don’t want to.”

We can probably assume, given the telegram and the era, that R.L. died in Vietnam. If you roll with that, then it’s fascinating, I think, the juxtaposition of the docile brother with the violent death. A waterfall visual is used twice in conjunction with R.L.’s death, however. Another well to drill.

Flash forward some 40 years to an adult Jack (played by Sean Penn), morose on the anniversary of his brother’s untimely demise. Now a successful Houston architect, Jack and his world are now filmed in very different ways. Quick, jarring pans capture the character and the modern industrial landscape, rigid lines define the design, glass and metal seem to cage the world. Indeed, the only trees in sight are the ones inside buildings. Nature has given way to the fierce will of man’s industrialization.

After carrying through these two brief passages, some 20 or 25 minutes into the film, Malick then takes us on his cosmos sequence, right on the heels of a bit of narration from Mrs. O’Brien asking God of her son’s tragedy, “Where were you?” (This echoes an opening quote from the Book of Job in which God asks the same question, demeaningly, of Job, vis a vis the creation of things much greater than his inconsequential existence.)

And Malick shows us. He shows us the creation of a universe, an epic big bang and the creation of protostars — which will eventually become suns — and the fiery, magma-laden beginnings of the earth itself.

Millennia go by as the land eventually summons the bio-evolution of species. Amoeba and bacteria first appear, then more advanced water-based lifeforms. Soon, they make their way to the surface and, eventually, the land, where a giant plesiosaur inspects a gashing wound, presumably inflicted by a hammerhead shark, given the juxtaposition of images.

Next comes the much-discussed dinosaur sequence, a brief but meaningful beat as a raptor-like creature (I’m unsure what it is specifically, and Malick reportedly made it a point to choose less-identifiable dinosaurs) exhibits compassion for another. And just as this crucial evolutionary bridge is crossed, Malick cuts to a beautiful shot behind the on-coming asteroid that will wipe out nearly all life on the planet, including these creatures at the top of the food chain. Fascinatingly, Malick films the asteroid’s collision with earth not in apocalyptic, epic proportions, but in matter-of-fact reserve, almost as if to emboss his point that this, too, is inconsequential in the great ether of things.

And so the indication is clear: the Lord (whatever that might be) giveth and the Lord taketh away. The death of R.L. is indeed a tragedy, but here we see the evolution and destruction of an entire ecosystem, one that came and went long before humans, indeed, long before what came BEFORE humans, and certainly before the O’Briens and their plight.

With this in mind, I come to my ultimate takeaway from the film. “The Tree of Life” does something entirely necessary: It makes us feel small. That pause and consideration of our triviality is a deep breath worth taking in this day and age.

The film then moves on to finish the story of the O’Briens. The father raises his children as he sees fit, the mother as she sees fit. Yin and Yang, fierce will and love, nature and grace. And in Jack, the collision of it all as his innocence slowly slips away, as it always does, as it must.

The story of this family I could watch on loop. I could even watch it progress through the decades. It is expertly revealed and the textures are so authentic that it’s paralyzing. It is, in so many words, some of Malick’s most truthful work as a filmmaker.

Unfortunately for “The Tree of Life,” the film is at its weakest in its final moments. To say the least, it must be difficult to put a cap on this ambition, but it slips away from the director as he tries to reconcile everything with a not-all-that-compelling vision of the afterlife.

This sequence does have some good ideas, however. There is something therapeutic about finally seeing the adult Jack (Penn) share the screen with his father (Pitt). But nothing really feels resolved, even as Mrs. O’Brien cryptically concedes her son (presumably R.L., though perhaps Jack) to the higher power. It would be one thing if lack of resolve was a point, but there is clearly an intention to be definitive at the end, and I believe something is lost.

The film closes on a shot of a suspension bridge. Why? I find myself wondering. Is it commentary on connectivity? Is the “water under the bridge” more important, symbolically, than the bridge itself? Perhaps. I’m unsure.

Some have taken issue with the entirety of adult Jack’s world and its usage in the film. I feel it makes sense early on, as depicting a man still grieving for a loss needed to be presented in order for the point to be made shortly thereafter that all this pain and grief and tragedy is but a blip on the radar of time. But I confess that it doesn’t work as organically at film’s end, and the scars of a considerably larger plot line are very much apparent.

Nevertheless, many of my conflicted feelings were smoothed out on a second viewing. So perhaps I’ll find something to take away from the denouement upon further re-visitation. I welcome the prospect, to be truthful.

“The Tree of Life” is likely to remain unmolested at the top of the year’s most thoughtful and thought-provoking cinematic studies. Regarding Oscars (covered at length here), I think by year’s end, Brad Pitt and Emmanuel Lubezki could be the film’s lone representatives (joined, perhaps, by the visual effects supervisors). But regardless of that, I still say bravo to Fox Searchlight for taking it head on, a film that isn’t likely to generate much revenue at the box office and will be a tough sell to traditionalist Academy types. It shows they care, and we could use a lot more of that out of the Hollywood system these days.

[Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

→ 27 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

27 responses so far

  • 1 5-27-2011 at 3:46 pm

    Ken said...

    I’m no wordsmith, but here goes… What struck me is how distinctly autobiographical the film was. I think calling it “personal” isn’t even scratching the surface, because, for me at least, child and adult Jack play child and adult Malick. It isn’t even like metaphors (besides the change in profession), its flatly him. And it’s Malick himself trying to reconcile with the dual string of his parent’s outlook/behavior/mortality (his father was a taskmaster and his mother was a gentle, religious person) and his own brother’s early demise. They don’t tell you how he was killed probably because of the nature of his death…Malick’s brother committed suicide in 1969 (and I think it was overseas somewhere). We don’t know much about the brother (in real life) other than his guitar-playing and his depression. Which I guess explains why (1) we see the guitar multiple times and (2) we see his brother smiling ear to ear over and over and over (that’s the way Malick wants to remember him?). I was close to breaking up in the theater at a couple of points because the interaction was just so deeply personal and a reflection of a man that has this inner struggle inside of him; many of the scenes seemed like (and probably were intended to be) memories of real events. The near-final scene, where the family reunited, was the most moving of all (and my second favorite behind the opera-laden Voyage of Time galaxy-creation). That beach/afterlife scene might just be what Malick wishes for most…hug his brother and his mother one more time.

    PS: There were two definite shots of Dallas in there. Thanksgiving Chapel and Reunion Tower were both in the movie, and both are fairly famous Dallas landmarks. I’m not familiar enough with the specific skyscrapers to know if it was Houston or Dallas, but I came away from the movie thinking it was Dallas.

  • 2 5-27-2011 at 4:28 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    RE: Dallas, that was my first thought, but then I kept reading in materials from the film calling it Houston.

  • 3 5-27-2011 at 4:51 pm

    Rashad said...

    I really hated the cosmos part of the film. I was much more pleased with the family stuff, but I didn’t feel anything for anyone and was more interested in Pitt (who was great) than the kids. I did love the baby stuff, and that shot of the kid in the underwater house opening the door (coming out of the womb). Then the interacting with the baby stuff was great, which was my favorite part. However after that, the movie just goes from event to event like memories. I know that’s intentional but there’s no connection there for me. Young Penn’s attitude shifts drastically and there’s little reason as to why. He’s so obsessed with his mother, it becomes creepy to me honestly.

    The notion that one must choose between nature and grace, as described in the film, is silly. The whole movie contradicted that setup with Pitt’s character being more complex than the simple Chastain.

  • 4 5-27-2011 at 6:35 pm

    Kevin Ketchum said...

    RE: Dallas vs. Houston: The film was shot in Austin, Smithville, Houston, Bastrop, Matagorda and Waco, at least according to official material on the film. Some stuff could’ve been shot in Dallas, but as far as I can tell, having lived in Dallas, Austin, and Houston all my life, the stuff with Sean Penn (as far as I can see from the footage I’ve seen) is most definitely in Houston.

  • 5 5-28-2011 at 10:33 am

    average joe said...

    Regarding the last sequence, I find it intriguing that Jack is shown alive and walking in the modern world after the apparent afterlife scenes.

    Could it be that these scenes were a dream or imagining, or that these scenes were symbolic of an epiphany he had, coming to terms with life and now at peace? The elevator ride down after the “afterlife” scenes could be representative of his coming back down to earth after his moment of revelation, and there’s also the elevator ride up before the scenes (his ascent to a higher state of consciousness? kind of like what one might experience during meditation? I’m having difficulty writing about this).

    Though time seems so fluid in this film that it could be that Malick brings us back to the present after showing us the end of time. There is the beeping during the elevator ride up and down that sounds like a heart monitor, implying someone 0n their death bed.

  • 6 5-28-2011 at 11:44 am

    jon said...

    @ average joe: That’s exactly how I viewed the ending. Granted, I’m an atheist, but I feel as though Mother could just as well be giving her son to God as she/Jack are letting go of grief and pain.

    To address Kris’ points, I agree that the ending isn’t as strong as the rest of the film, mostly because it just goes on a little longer than necessary for my taste, but I can’t think of a more appropriate visual metaphor than “standing on the shore of the infinite.” In that moment, Jack makes peace with his past and, most strikingly, once again finds the beauty and awe of nature in the world around him (literally depicted as the sky reflected in a series of mirrored office buildings, where nature and the man-made world resolve as one).

    I thought the last shot implied a bridge between the world as we’ve made it and nature, of past and present, of pain and acceptance, of this world and the infinite.

    Does anyone else have thoughts on the sunflowers other than as Blake used them?

  • 7 5-28-2011 at 11:52 am

    jon said...

    @ Ken: Malick’s brother Larry was a guitar student who committed suicide while studying with Segovia in Spain.

    The film is dedicated to LRM (Larry Malick) and CBM (Chris Malick, his other brother who died during post-production).

    So, yes, this film is painfully autobiographical.

  • 8 5-28-2011 at 11:53 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    average joe: Good commentary on that. I noticed it as well but didn’t think about it.

    jon: I agree that it seems to have a deliberate function, I’m just not sure it achieves it with the completeness it’s aiming for. Much of the film, even in its meandering, feels so tight to me, and vital. But those moments in the end begin to unravel for me. It just feels less focused. Regardless, I want to dig in again specifically to take stock of those bits.

    Great note on the bridge, which folds in with my point that the film is very much about the convergence of nature and grace.

  • 9 5-28-2011 at 12:25 pm

    average joe said...

    Jon: Great thought about the reflection of the sky and clouds in the office buildings. That may be my shot of the year for its beauty and thematic resonance.

  • 10 5-28-2011 at 12:26 pm

    average joe said...

    Kris, I know it’s a long ways away, but I can’t wait til your end of the year top 10 shot column to see which image(s) from The Tree of Life make it to your list.

  • 11 5-28-2011 at 12:58 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Me too. :)

  • 12 5-28-2011 at 4:35 pm

    jon said...

    average joe: Agreed. The image hit me on a visceral level last night and is almost unreal in its beauty.

    Your initial comment got me thinking more about the use of time in the film. I hope I can articulate this clearly, so here goes nothing:

    In the “present” sequence, the film’s events are confined to the span of a single day, as Adult Jack wakes up on the anniversary of his brother’s death, lights a candle, and goes to work, where he is distracted by his thoughts. The flashback to the 1950s are his childhood memories, and the creation/afterlife sequences are ruminations and/or catharses as he comes to terms with the tragedy in the grand scheme of life.

    My point, if you agree with that fairly straightforward assessment, is that in a single day Jack “experiences” his childhood and all that might have come before him. That single day is a small but crucial moment in the totality of his life, and yet comprises all of his experiences up to that point, just as the entirety of human existence might only be “a single day” – albeit a significant one – with regard to the universe as a whole, and likewise could not have been achieved without all that came before it.

    Kris: I agree regarding the convergence of nature and grace, which is perfectly illustrated in the moment between the two dinosaurs, and echoed again millions of years later in the father who tries to dominate his sons and his wife just as he expresses his love to them. In the moment where he subdues his wife in the kitchen, I kept thinking, “Nothing changes. It’s all a continuum. Only the scenery is different.”

    Whatever your take on the film, I wholeheartedly disagree with anyone who says there isn’t plenty to consider after the fact.

  • 13 6-03-2011 at 2:22 pm

    heather said...

    Forgive me for being late to the party, as the film just opened in Atlanta today. My thoughts on the afterlife scene follow.

    Did anyone else notice the split second they’re in the house before walking out the door that it looked like there was a bride? Revelation describes Jesus’ return as a wedding feast, so I wonder if it describing the end of time, as the movie began with the beginning of time.

  • 14 6-10-2011 at 2:43 pm

    Speaking English said...

    While a third brother is left on the cutting room floor? But weren’t there three brothers in the movie already?

  • 15 6-30-2011 at 8:42 pm

    Kennedy said...

    This movie bored and depressed me and my friend soooo much we did not stay for the end. I love Lars Von Trier, and so many other film makers who do cool things on film. But seriously? I firmly believe that we are small and that mankind is just the newest kid on the block. But why make a movie that uninteresting with no one to root for. Is that the point? No one to root for?

  • 16 7-30-2011 at 3:03 pm

    Sherry said...

    Thanks for this piece and for your thoughtfulness about the film. I’ve now seen it four times and I think its power is that it can be uniquely personal to each person who sees it, while also personal to Malick himself. I just want to disagree with you about some of your conclusions. I love the ending – but I don’t believe that it is meant to be the afterlife at all. I believe the film is an expression of faith experience, about the ways in which healing and redemption are co-existent with love triumphing. I actually therefore believe that last sequence in the water is an expression/portrait of personal transformation: the state of forgiveness borne out of acceptance of what has happened and love. This is why we see him again on the street afterward, looking more at peace. I also therefore believe strongly that the film does not leave us with both fierce will and grace as synergistic partners – but that grace is meant to clearly be the winner here. “Unless you love, your life will fly by.” His life is flying by before him, but is now to be more fully lived, because of the transformational experience he has had that day. Anyway, just thoughts. And thank you for your thoughts, which were elsewhere very insightful for me.

  • 17 8-13-2011 at 4:10 am

    charles said...

    @ Ken: Absolutely the film is autobiographical.

    Just for fun, compare the mien and countenance of the young Jack in The Tree of Life to that of the man who comes to the door of the rich man’s house in Badlands; they are astoundingly similar. It was wonderful to know that the man at the rich man’s door is Terrence Malick himself, and just marvelous they found Hunter McCracken to play the young, um… Malick.

  • 18 8-28-2011 at 7:09 pm

    John said...

    Nice review but…
    What are the most important films to understand The Tree of life: Badlands and…..Vertigo.
    Vertigo is quoted from the beginning to the end of The Tree of Life.

    And do you know what poem inspired the shot of the bridge (actually the entire film).
    It goes like this:
    Long have I loved you and for my own delight
    Would call you mother, give you an artless song,…

    You should see this for more explanations:


  • 19 11-27-2011 at 11:03 pm

    Bob said...

    To Ken in the first comment above. I suspect that smiling from ear to ear is exactly the way Terry remembers his brother Larry. He did not exhibit any depression in higg school, before he went to Spain. He was one of the most happy, kind and gentile people I have ever known. Much as he is depicted in the movie. I never saw him after he went to Spain. But, he certainly seemed to enjoy life before that.

  • 20 12-07-2011 at 2:29 pm

    Rogan said...

    Just a quick thought about the suspension bridge at the end of the film… this scene comes from Jack’s real life, and is shot out of sequence (since we just saw Jack in the afterlife). Sadly, I think it is the scene just before Jack takes his own life, with Jack jumping off the bridge. The other symbolic meaning could still apply, but that is my take on it.

  • 21 12-24-2011 at 1:27 pm

    victor said...

    I’m surprised that this movie has been called a ‘Christian’ movie when many of the film’s themes and imagery are from book of Job. For example, the sermon based on Job’s life and suffering, the triviality of our lives (38:4), “Where were you (Job) when I founded the earth” (38:4), the re-creation scene,”If an able-bodied man dies can he live again?…you will call, and I myself shall answer you. For the work of your hands you will have a yearning” (14:14), and the age-reversal scene ,”Let his flesh become fresher than in youth” (33:25)–are all pre-Christian thinking. In fact, few Jews living 2000 years ago had any trouble understanding the concept of an earthly resurrection at the end of time.

    Jack has the dream/vision before he wakes up. The final scene is the flashback of his dream/vision, which comes after the flashback of his childhood. Jack’s father is still living, but it is obvious his mother has already died since we see her swimming up to the surface of the water in the re-creation vision.

    And, of course, the movie encompasses so much more–water, life, and Darwinism.I didn’t understand the sunflowers nor the bridge scenes, but I really enjoyed what others have written about them.

  • 22 1-28-2012 at 7:09 am

    DaFino said...

    Adult Jack was dead or at the transition point between life and death. His home and job contain familiar things to help with the transition. His “wife” who is introduced after the quote I think was “who guides or watches over me”? They never interact, but she is seen watching over hm. His house is much like the second O’Brien home but more ethereal. He is seen watching his parents grieve over notice of brothers death but as an adult. His job looks a conglomeration of his fathers life, blueprints , aerospace, design. He going up in elevators at times of forgiveness and reconciliation.My theory holds up until the last 2 GD minutes of the film!! Is his mother sending him back to life? is She GOD? Is he the “SON”? Is she giving us “HIM”? or was he near death and had a moment of afterlife experience and flashed a knowing smile?

  • 23 2-04-2012 at 5:37 am

    Dr. Rao Mallik Kotamarti said...

    Mother’s place of beautiful non-reality of joy and sorrow is earth in life. Father’s non-place of truthful reality of peace and grace is heaven after life. Spirit simply spends time here and there, now and forever, living and loving with feeling and understanding. One kingdom under Him and one spirit due to Him appears like many.

  • 24 10-11-2012 at 4:06 pm

    Adam Thompson said...

    I urge anyone who is considering to purchase and or rent this film to reconsider. This is the worst piece of film I have seen since “The men who stare at goats” It is 2 hours of my life which I will never get back and it is the biggest load of arty farty bollocks ever, it has no storyline dodges around random images with no meaning and is the biggest waste of money since the increase in foreign aid

  • 25 3-16-2013 at 6:42 pm

    Jen said...

    I haven’t seen such a bad film since “Vanilla Sky” with Tom Cruise…and that was a disaster!

  • 26 10-31-2013 at 3:00 pm

    vic said... said...

    Did no one else see the figure of a man dive from the bridge at the end? I believe that is what I saw when watching it on Sundance moments ago.