What do rowdy boys, engineers, the Creation of the universe, and family tragedy have in common? If you have ever watched The Tree of Life (2011), then you will probably recall that these were all part of this engaging cinema. When I saw that I had an opportunity to critique a film for my Aesthetic Appreciation class, I decided to get input from my friend, Silas Firth, who is an avid film critic and a budding movie director. Promptly, he responded with a hearty recommendation for The Tree of Life. After watching it, I can see why he recommended it.
At the time of this writing, The Tree of Life is only about five years old (Released in 2011). Terrence Malick directed the film, and Brad Pitt played Mr. O’Brien, the main character’s father. Following its release, it was arguably met with success. Theaters across the country were not overrun for this movie. In fact, according to Box Office Mojo, it ranked #15 on its opening weekend. While its popularity does not suggest that it was successful, critics’ responses can. Metacritic’s aggregation of critics’ Top Ten lists for 2011 ranked The Tree of Life as the best film of the year. IMDb shows that it received about 100 awards, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
The director, Terrence Malick, also wrote the script for this film. In watching it, I noticed that the script was at times quite disjointed. The overall arrangement of the film, however, was very powerful. I did not feel like the script detracted from the film.
Alexandre Desplat is credited with composing the score for The Tree of Life. In reality, much of the music was drawn from other pieces. These included Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, and many others.
Note: The time for certain scenes is cited in parentheses. These times may be approximate.
Early on in the movie, we encounter Jack O’Brien, an architect. We see him amongst skyscrapers doing business, but he seems to be very distracted. Flashing back, the movie gives us an explanation. We see his mother, Mrs. O’Brien, get the news that her middle son—Jack’s younger brother—R.L. had died. As she releases a heartbroken cry, the camera jump cuts to another scene of her husband getting the news as he stands by a runway (5:10).
Following this, we see Mrs. O’Brien’s grief and her confusion toward God. The camera depicts this well. We walk through the house, seeing it from her perspective. We glance into R.L.’s room, see the empty bed, then turn away and walk past (7:00). Another time, she is standing outside. The camera shows the shadows of three boys playing (8:02). This shot provides a powerful symbol. The days of the happy trio are ended. With one boy gone, these days were just a shadow of the past.
Mr. O’Brien is a thick-crusted man, but he shows some grief and regret. For about thirty seconds straight, the camera focuses on him as he painfully recalls his regrets (10:03). This drawn-out perspective emphasizes the pain Mr. O’Brien was experiencing. Mrs. O’Brien is more open about her grief. Friends try to comfort her, but their words fail. One woman seems to mean well, but her attempt is cold at best.
You have to be strong now, and… I know the pain will pass in time. You know, it might seem hard my saying that, but it’s true. Life goes on. People pass along. Nothing stays the same. You’ve still got the other two. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. That’s the way He is. He sends flies to wounds that He should heal.
This woman seems to represent people lacking empathy who try to comfort those in grief. You may notice that she quotes from Job 1:21 (“The Lord gives…”). This is an ironic reference. Job, in the Bible, was a prosperous man who suddenly lost nearly all he had. After this, his “friends” came and tried to comfort him. Their attempts failed, much like the woman I just quoted. Perhaps this connection was intentional.
In what might be an unexpected jump, we are taken back to the dawn of the universe. Slowly, we see the earth take shape and life form and fill it. Most of the movie’s visual special effects are concentrated in this part. After galaxies form, we view a sea of molten rock (23:40). A thunderous rumble accompanies the view of this churning mass. We see after this a cold, barren earth. Soon it begins to be filled with life. With more special effects, the movie shows microscopic biological activity (28:44) and other new activity.
Following Malick’s depiction of earth’s formation, we see a young Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien enter. Shortly thereafter, Jack is born. The rest of the movie shows life from his perspective. This is where the movie shines. The story is told in an unconventional way. In many movies, you are the audience. You watch and listen as events unfold, usually accompanied by ample dialogue. This is not so in The Tree of Life. Malick draws you into the story, and on some level, you experience Jack’s life. Dialogue supplements this experience, but the visual part of the story is probably far more significant.
As Jack is a baby, you get a sense of joy and adventure. The way the cameras shot the scenes helps you see the world from his perspective. Much of his time is spent with his mother. The world seems so innocent and happy. In one scene, he sits with his mother, and she shows him cutouts of various animals, teaching him their names. It is obviously new and confusing when he sees evil for the first time—a man on the ground in handcuffs. His mother tries to shield his eyes. Following this, something else confusing happens: he gets a new sibling. At first he is intrigued. Then he appears frustrated that he has to share his mother.
Jack grows and begins to explore. The world is a place of adventure. One scene shows him venturing up the stairs for the first time. The lighting is used powerfully in this scene. Light floods into the room at the bottom of the stairs, but farther up the stairs, it gets darker. This seemed to symbolize the sense of adventure for Jack; he was venturing into the unknown. Around this time, Jack’s mother points to the sky and says, “That’s where God lives.” After that, we get several glimpses of Jack trying to understand who God is.
Jack grows. One day, he is at the pool with his family and friends. Their day is devastated when one of the boys present (but not in the family) drowns. The movie jump cuts from a stricken crowd dressed for a day at the pool to a solemn crowd dressed in solemn shades walking away from a funeral. After this, Jack and his brothers are shown romping around a graveyard. Regardless, it is clear that the tragedy did not leave Jack without questions. Later, we hear Jack whispering to God, confused. “Where were you? You let a boy die” (1:14:05).
As Jack grows, tension grows between him and his father. Paul Asay with PluggedIn.com observed in his review of the movie that Mr. O’Brien is the most religious person in the movie. Unfortunately, his religion seems to be limited to several external rituals. It does not show in his attitude. He is a proud, authoritarian father who gets mad when his will is crossed. In a particularly heated conflict, his temper wounds his family (1:23:00). We see Jack developing distance, dislike, and eventually, hatred for his father.
One day, Mr. O’Brien left on a long business trip (1:28:00). The boys were excited to be free of his critical eye. Jack, however, abuses this freedom. He spends time with a group of boys who influence him negatively. Going with the flow, he finds himself doing increasingly worse things. He breaks a window and abuses animals. It is evident that his load of guilt is growing. His mom is sad, and she asks him to promise to stop. He complies, but it is not long before he finds himself doing something even worse. Spying from his yard, he watches his neighbor leave. Temptation calls. He goes over to the neighbor’s door. Hesitantly, he cracks the door and slips inside. After creeping through the house, he goes to the bedroom and starts rummaging through drawers. He finds an eye-catching nightgown and steals it. His guilt grows even more. He wants to be free of his guilt. This seems to be symbolized in his next move: trying to hide the gown by the river. He realizes that would not work, so he tosses it in the river.
As I watched the scene in which he started to break in, I felt disappointed in him. After a series of bad decisions, he was about to make another bad move. Things were not getting better. It was sad how he had gone from an innocent baby to a guilt-laden rascal. He said it well later: “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.”
Jack ends up breaking free of his downward spiral and finding forgiveness. It is powerful how the story pans out. The theme of the movie could be summed up in the statement near the beginning: “A man’s heart has heard two ways through life. The way of nature. And the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” This movie shows what each of these looks like. Jack tries the way of nature for a while—doing whatever he wanted. It did not work. Throughout the story, Mrs. O’Brien is a symbol of grace. Eventually, Jack learns the way of grace.
To me, the director seemed to want the viewers of this movie to see events from Jack’s eyes, and I think he did that very well. It was a powerful movie, and I would like to watch it again sometime. I agree with what A.O. Scott from the New York Times said about the movie.
There are very few films I can think of that convey the changing interior weather of a child’s mind with such fidelity and sensitivity. Nor are there many that penetrate so deeply into the currents of feeling that bind and separate the members of a family. So much is conveyed — about the tension and tenderness within the O’Brien marriage, about the frustrations that dent their happiness, about the volatility of the bonds between siblings — but without any of the usual architecture of dramatic exposition (Scott).
Asay, Paul. “The Tree of Life Movie Review (2011).” Plugged In. Focus on the Family, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2016. <http://www.pluggedin.com/movie-reviews/treeoflife>.
Dietz, Jason. “2011 Film Critic Top Ten Lists.” Metacritic. Metacritic, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 08 Apr. 2016. <http://www.metacritic.com/feature/movie-critic-best-of-2011-top-ten-lists>.
Scott, A. O. “Heaven, Texas and the Cosmic Whodunit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 May 2011. Web. 08 Apr. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/movies/the-tree-of-life-from-terrence-malick-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.
“The Tree of Life (2011): Awards.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2016. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478304/awards?ref_=tt_awd>.
“The Tree of Life (2011) – Box Office Mojo.” Box Office Mojo. Box Office Mojo, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2016. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=treeoflife.htm>.