Terrence Malick is no ordinary filmmaker, nor is The Tree of Life a typical drama. (Is it a drama?)
It’s hard to put the film’s plot into a box, but that being said I’ll try my best before I go into my thoughts.
Simply, The Tree of Life is the story of a man looking back on his childhood and how the differing natures of his parents shaped him. Unusually, however, this reflection is placed on a universal scale. Malick gives the smallest events great significance. Every leaf, every twitch of the eye, every cloud is granted its fullest importance. Dialogue is minimal, but the voiceovers (when they occur) are profound.
Reflections (Because a review of this one just won’t do.)
- The allegorical representation of grace embodied by Jack’s (the protagonist) mother and nature in his father is a striking contrast. This theme of nature and grace is a great concern of The Tree of Life. It pulls at Jack, leaving him torn and bewildered as to which he should follow. (“Mother, Father. Always you wrestle inside me; always you will.”) Ultimately we see though, that one must choose to be one or the other.
Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.
Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
- The quotation from Job at the beginning of the film, “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?” speaks deeply to the questions the characters ask. Mrs. O’Brian’s question in her time of mourning for her middle son of “Lord, where were you?” is answered by an expansive and dramatic sequence of creation – from atoms to dinosaurs, volcanos and oceans.
- This answer to her question mirrors the Lord’s answer to Job. Rather than providing Job with a practical answer, the Lord shows Job who he is and Job covers his mouth in lieu of a reply. Mrs. O’Brian’s response, at the end of the film, is surrender. “I give him to you, I give you my son.”
- The sensitivity with which Malick handles each shot, the beauty and wonder in each scene does more justice to God’s creation than any film I’ve seen. The film itself is like a poem, deeply symbolic, full of beauty, embedded with metaphor.
- Much of The Tree of Life, speaks to faith in way filled with much more staggering truth and wonder than any evangelical film. The conclusion of the plot, isn’t quite tidy, considering there isn’t a conclusion. Rather one takes in the questions of the O’Brian family, watches the unfolding of their characters, and the responses of God to their lives and pondering.
- The sweeping and metaphorical last scene spoke more to me this second time watching it than the first time. (Probably because the first time I was too lost in a place of awe and confusion to fully understand the conclusion.)
- The sense of release, restoration, and understanding that occurs in the images of those being raised from the dead and all people coming together, and most deeply, older Jack meeting his family and himself as they were in his growing up years are some of the most compelling moments of the movie.
- One identifies with Jack’s perplexity over his temptations and realizations that he is not an innocent creature.
“I always do stupid things. I want to be little again. How do I get back to where they are?”
- His wrestling with the different natures of his parents is compelling, not only for Jack, but for us as well. Do we, as Jack’s father, assert ourselves over others, demanding that they see us, and ignore the beauty around us? (As Jack observes “He says ‘don’t put your elbows on the table.’ He does. He says not to insult people. He does.”) Or, like Mrs. O’Brian, do we treat others with grace and view the world as a place of revelation?
- Most compelling perhaps, are the characters’ journeys in faith, the questions they ask, and the conclusions that are given them.
- Mrs. O’Brian’s “why?” and the praiseworthiness/holiness of the Lord that is revealed to the viewer through creation.
- Mr. O’Brian’s domineering nature and realization that he “wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”
- Jack’s questions about faith, the emotional bewilderment of the differences between nature and grace, and his conclusion that “I didn’t know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me.”
What speaks to me most deeply in The Tree of Life, is Jack’s awakening in understanding that the Lord was always there, calling him through the sweet faithful nature of his brother and the grace of his mother. Even in his moments of emotional chaos and sin, he was not abandoned, he just had to learn to step through the door of faith himself.
Mr. O’Brian’s pride and intimidating attitude toward the world and his children unravels in his statement that he was foolish for never noticing the glory. This, I think, is the heart of the film. If one does not step back and “notice the glory” one cannot see God’s hands in all things, as Jack comes to realize. In understanding who God is, and worshipping Him for the magnificent display of His glory that is in creation, one better understands love. As Mrs. O’Brian whispers,
Unless you love, your life will flash by.
Reviews/Reflections (much more thorough/insightful than mine)