Saturday, May 27, 2017

Chris' #76: The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Release Date: May 27, 2011 (U.S.)

IMDB Synopsis: The story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence and struggles with his parents' conflicting teachings.

First Time
I saw The Tree of Life at the Art Mission Theater in the summer of 2011--I believe that that's when it finally came to Binghamton. I still remember my theater experience quite well; there were these two annoying people sitting in the row ahead of me and they kept groaning throughout the film, especially toward the end. I guess it was too long and artsy for them, but their little commentary almost ruined my experience. Let that be a lesson to everyone: if you're not enjoying a movie, walk out or keep the commentary to yourself.

Why it's on the List
This decision ultimately came down to The Tree of Life vs. The New World. The two films are both profoundly beautiful, but in the end I gave the nod to this one because I strongly relate to the themes and the relationships.

At the heart of this film is the dichotomy between nature and grace. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) tells us that we must choose which one to follow. I'm sure John can give us more of a Biblical reading into this (and probably did on his old blog), but I do see this theme represented in the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament. On the surface, Terrence Malick applies this theme to the actions and philosophies of Mrs. and Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt).

I fell in love with Jessica Chastain when I saw this for the first time. I don't mean that in a, "I'm an obsessed weirdo" kinda way, but rather, I find her performance in this to be extremely serene. Her presence in this is very soothing and always seems to put me at ease. Mrs. O'Brien is the ultimate maternal figure, displaying both love and occasional moments of austerity. She teaches her three sons to "help each other" and to "love everyone." Mr. O'Brien, on the other hand, teaches his sons how to fight and defend themselves. He wants to make it absolutely clear to them that the world can be relentless in its cruelty; the only way to combat this is to toughen up. I suppose I'm not particularly good at choosing between nature and grace; despite the apparent conflicts, both are needed to navigate through this wild and whacky world.

I'm glad that Malick balances Mr. O'Brien out as a character; he has a very loud presence as this intimidating asshole, but he will also find time to goof around with his kids. Malick also seems to poke fun at him a litte bit; at one point, Papa O'Brien is lecturing his boys as he drives down the residential streets of Waco. Seconds into this diatribe, his boys begin to tune him out and his eldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken), starts fidgeting with the radio. We've all experienced that "here he goes again" moment with certain family and friends, and most of us will deny being the "he" in that sentence.

My own father isn't that similar to Mr. O'Brien, but there are a couple of scenes in this film that really hit close to home. The most relatable moment occurs shortly after Mr. O'Brien leaves on a business trip. When Jack and his brothers find out that their father will be gone for an extended amount of time, they start dancing around the house. Like Brad Pitt's character, my dad is not a monster, nor is he necessarily a bad father, but my brothers and I were known to celebrate when he left the house. We have a better relationship with him now, so I don't feel too guilty about it. The dynamic between Jack and his parents also hits close to home for me. I commend Jack's bravery for being able to confront the behavior of his mother and father; it's not something that I'm always able to do.

As was the case with E.T.The Tree of Life provides some nostalgia for a "simpler time." Simpler time belongs in quotes, since the 1950s (and the subsequent decades) were hardly simpler for so many groups of people. Regardless, I know that when I was three years old, I would wander through the streets of Oxford, New York with my older brother and our friends. We were too young for video games, so our entertainment consisted of Sesame StreetThe Care Bears, and screwing around outside. While I don't feel that this was a superior childhood experience, the independence did lead to some fun adventures. Childhood independence can also lead to danger, too, and Malick does not hide that fact. One of the neighborhood kids drowns at the town pool, and another is injured by a firework. Fortunately, I did not have confront death and violence in the way that Jack did as a child.

Malick's style certainly isn't for everyone, and while I do feel that he can go a little overboard at times, I still find The Tree of Life's finished product to be both beautiful and reflective. Even though the film is slow and non-linear, it provides the audience with the space to think and feel however we want. We are constantly inundated with short flashes of memories. At one point, Jack becomes attracted to one of his classmates; we pick up on this without the use of dialogue or voiceover. Malick allows the images to just exist up on the screen without beating us over the head with on-the-nose narration. I love the camera movements in this; it seems to glide around the characters like some sort of spiritual being.

I was raised Methodist and attended church until the age of fourteen or so. There are specific lines in this film that I can recall saying/thinking during my many conversations with God. At one point, Jack addresses God and says, "Where were you? You let a boy die." Later on he asks, "Why should I be good if you aren't?"--though that question may also apply to Mr. O'Brien. There's a lot to unpack here, but I do feel that these questions are more than fair for a person raised on religion to ask. Again, I appreciate the act of confrontation in this film; it asks the big questions even though the answers are difficult or unknowable.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is the only Terrence Malik film on my list. I really want to rewatch Badlands and Days of HeavenThe Thin Red Line is very beautiful, too. Malick rules, and I should probably have more than one of his films in my top 100. Shame on me.
  • I have two more Brad Pitt movies on my list, one of which I'll be discussing within the next week or two.
  • Up until a few days ago, this was the only Jessica Chastain movie on my list, but I just bumped something off to make room for a film that I overlooked.


  1. One of my favorite living theologians (I could give you a Top Ten Favorite Living Theologians list if you want!) loved this movie so much that he wrote an entire (slim) book about it:

    The book is very good, but even it could not convince me to love Tree of Life. I respect the film, but I don't love it.

  2. Save your list for Theologians Club after we finish up this project.