Even for the most die-hard film buffs out there, the works of Terrence Malick have always been the subject of some deep analysis and clashing interpretations. Among the many solid movies in the filmmaker’s oeuvre, few are as discussed – and as divisive – as 2011’s The Tree of Life.
Malick has always been a decidedly introspective artist. His films, richly layered with symbolism, can leave his audience asking questions about almost every facet of life, from religion to astronomy, while trying to decipher some sort of deeper meaning behind what they just saw.
Here’s the thing: like life itself, The Tree of Life only presents the raw facts – it’s up to the spectator to infer the meaning of it all in the end. This might sound a bit convoluted or even downright pretentious, but there’s more to The Tree of Life than meets the eye.
As ambitious as it might sound, The Tree of Life is an exploration of all the things, big and small, that have ever existed. Of particular interest for Malick is the subject of life and death: the eternal cycle that has been represented in many cultures around the world as some sort of divine tree.
In the movie, we perceive life through the eyes of Jack O’Brien. Throughout his life, Jack’s brushes with new life and unavoidable death shape the man he becomes towards the end of the film.
Every scene where the O’Brien family deals with their tragedies and victories, Malick compares with monumental moments in the creation of the universe. For example, a person’s birth might as well be the creation of a new universe – and that’s something that Malick presents with a dim, flickering light shining light into darkness. At the same time, this light is a metaphor for the creation of the universe according to numerous faiths.
This is the same formula Malick follows throughout the film: a minuscule moment in a person’s life can become a metaphor for some of the greater events outside our control. As such, Jack O’Brien’s life and memories become the lives and memories of all of creation, as every human being goes through similar life experiences, despite our apparent differences.
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What Happens in the End?
That’s the big question, isn’t it? Every human that has ever lived – and probably everyone that will ever live – has asked the same question, and Terrence Malick tries to illustrate this feeling of absolute dread and complete calmness with some of the most impressive imagery ever seen on film.
The film’s final moments happen on a beach: a seashore where old and current memories seemingly become one. Jack reunites with his family as he remembers them from his childhood. His mother has finally found meaning in the loss of her first child, while a cavalcade of dream-like sights makes us wonder what is real and what is mere fantasy.
In a poem attributed to Charles Brent, the Episcopal Bishop describes death as a seashore where a ship sails for parts unknown. When the vessel disappears from sight, it must reappear on some other seashore, where a crowd awaits its return. The Tree of Life‘s ending might be an allusion to this notion, as we see that, even though Jack’s story is over, the flickering light continues to glow.
The Tree of Life is not a film that can be easily analyzed and meticulously explained; it’s more like an experience, akin to watching the sunset, the moonrise, or a thunderstorm that comes right after a sunny day. It’s better if you try to enjoy it and come up with your own interpretation.
Much like life itself, everyone who sees The Tree of Life has a different understanding of what the movie represents – and what it all means in the end.
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The Tree of Life is a very rare creation, an impressionistic film / movie which answers and questions some of life’s most perplexing themes, including creation, life, spirituality, grace, nature, death and existence. Acclaimed director Terrence Malick, well-known for pushing the envelope, studies these complexities of the human spirit and then expresses the results through the use of powerful imagery.
While it is evident that The Tree of Life is clearly a work of great importance, and is simply beautiful to watch, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
By this time you have no doubt seen numerous critics gushing out five-star reviews for what many claim to be “one of the best movies of the past century”. Nominated for three Oscar Awards, including Picture of the Year, the two-and-a-half-hour film starring two of Hollywood’s biggest names, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, is probably like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Part film and part documentary, The Tree of life, while beautiful and inspiring, can prove to be both difficult and frustrating to watch (think Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter meets Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey sponsored by National Geographic). It’s a film deeply rooted in creating art, leaving most of the story up to interpretation.
Any real attempts to explain the film would probably prove to be futile.
Most often the sequences feel spontaneous and unscripted, giving way to the impressions of childhood (perhaps the director’s own) rather than providing a profound storyline. The idea is that the impressions, which include feeling the love from your parents, the hurt after death, the anger of abuse, the frustration of loss, and the joy of learning to walk, would trigger the viewer’s own memory, reminding us of life’s simplicities. We experience all these joys through the innocent eyes of a young boy named Jack.
The Tree of Life opens with a scripture from the Bible, Job 38:4, 7 superimposed over the black: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
It’s followed by the presence of a mysterious, wavering light that resembles a flame flickering in the darkness, as a quiet and calm voice whispers questions directed at God.
Soon the operatic choirs join in and we are transported to mid-20th century America, Mrs O’Brien’s childhood. She narrates a lesson she learned from the nuns at a young age. “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. 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.”
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It’s clear from the very first time we meet Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) that he has chosen nature, and that Mrs O’Brien has in fact chosen grace.
Mr O’Brien is a stern father who often disciplines his children, whereas Mrs O’Brien gently nurtures them. Young Jack is placed dead centre in the midst of the conflict between grace and nature, having seen direct representations in his parents.
Malick explains, “The family – our first school – is the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves or discover life’s single most important lesson, of unselfish love.”
From there on, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life movie / film jumps between Earth’s creation, the cosmos, and dinosaurs roaming the Earth to the future, at the end of the world, the sun is about to supernova.
The best acting unquestionably comes from Brad Pitt, who manages to embody the full force of nature that the film tries to define. He displays the demanding presence, the irrepressible anger, and the unpredictable power of nature. Although he loves his children very much he always exhibits “tough love.”
While the title cleverly refers to the Loss of Innocence (the story of Adam and Eve) and deals with a lot of Christian beliefs regarding grace, it’s an emotional wrestle with faith and that choice is universal. It’s not a lecture or a sermon, but rather an honest flow of memories, thoughts, and dreams.
I can assure you that The Tree of Life will be the most beautiful movie you have ever seen, but I cannot assure you that you will enjoy it. If you reach out and search for the meaning of the film, you won’t be disappointed by The Tree of Life.