Now out on DVD, Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is an ambitious and evocative film that challenges viewers with a wide-ranging narrative that touches on deeply personal moments between family members and the biggest of all questions, the creation of the cosmos. While some people find Malick’s work to be tedious, and inscrutable, I find The Tree of Life to be a compelling, if imperfect, examination of the deepest questions of life and relationships.
Malick introduces his thematic conflict of Grace vs. Nature in the persons of Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. They are parents to three boys, growing up in the 1950s in small-town Texas. The film closely follows the life of the oldest, Jack, played beautifully by newcomer Hunter McCracken and, in middle age, by Sean Penn.
“There are two ways through life; the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” With these words, Jack’s mother introduces her invitation to live in grace. She is a playful, warm, loving presence in the boys’ life. Contrasting this is Jack’s father’s point-of-view, that of Nature; “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” He is a man consumed by frustration and disappointment. He is driven to fight for every scrap of ground, every rung on the ladder of success. And his mission is to instill his values in the lives of his boys, dismissing the way of grace espoused by their mother.
The unexpected death of R.L., the middle son, at age 19 sets the conflict in motion. This moment in time is explored briefly in the beginning of the film but the majority of the film is told in flashback to the sometimes idyllic, sometimes tempestuous childhood of Jack and his brothers. Older Jack (Sean Penn) is introduced as he attempts, now in middle age, to deal with the conflict and unresolved guilt from his childhood. Jack’s journey as a boy and as an adult is explained by Jack himself, “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
Malick’s brings this world to life in his typically lyric, evocative storytelling style. He makes liberal use of jump-cuts and repetition, and a floating, fluid camera. Long periods pass without dialogue, allowing the actors and their subtle expressions to convey what is happening. This style has its detractors and certainly demands more from an audience. However, I never found myself lost to the story, even when Malick inserts a lengthy montage, ambitiously taking us all the way back to the Big Bang (flashback-of-all-flashbacks!) Malick’s use of recurring images and sounds, the ocean, doorways, trees and light, contrasting modern steel architecture, create a beautiful visual and aural tapestry that invites multiple viewings.
Of course, a film that risks much and challenges its audience is bound to fall short at moments and have its detractors. The Creation Montage is one major aside that seems a bit long for its intended story purpose. I also questioned the passivity of the Protagonist, Jack. As a youth he is very active in boyish ways but seems compelled to act in ways that escalate into actual cruelty to his younger brother–the way of nature. Interestingly, he paraphrases St. Paul’s observation from the 7th chapter of Romans about doing the very thing he doesn’t want to do. As the adult Jack, Sean Penn spends most of the film looking tired and pensive. He never makes a decisive step to address the conflict.
On more reflection, I am oddly comforted that Jack is never forced to act, as an adult, in order to find forgiveness and grace. He is drawn to it by his mother and brother. They open a door and invite him to step through. Isn’t this really what grace is all about? Normally we say that a Protagonist must act, must choose, must risk. Malick seems to be saying, “No, grace can come to us in other ways.” This is truly Grace – unmerited favor rather than self-saving action. It’s not typical Hollywood, and it is a compelling message for us.