A dinosaur lies on its side, panting in a stream’s shallows. It may be dying, it’s certainly vulnerable. A second, slightly larger dinosaur appears in the near distance, makes its way to the first one’s side and cocks it head, birdlike, to gaze on the damaged other. The second one pauses, then lifts its foot and places it, carefully, on the panting dinosaur’s head. The second presses down as the first can barely resist. The second steps off and walks away. The first one pants some more.
This brief scene in The Tree of Life is one of many that imagine beginnings. Stars swirl, cells divide, a meteor slams earth, a father-to-be caresses his wife’s round belly. Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, Terrence Malick’s movie offers up such moments not as if they’re new, but rather, familiar and cyclical, creations as repetitions. The dinosaur that steps on another appears to have a thought, or at least an impulse. Its aggression is unnecessary and hard, an indication of some ugly, maybe sudden self-awareness. Then again, it’s a dinosaur, which means its awareness is not at issue. Yours is what matters.
Yours is guided throughout The Tree of Life not only by what you see, but also by what you’re told. “There are two ways through life,” narrates Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), “The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.” Her way—in Waco, Texas, mid-‘50s—seems clear enough: she’s pale and lovely, red-headed and lithe, she hugs her young sons, she bears up under sudden flashes of abuse by her seething husband, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt). One of her three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken) grows up to be played by Sean Penn, both his home and his office defined by clean lines and empty space. Another doesn’t grow up at all, the 19-year-old victim of an unseen, vaguely referenced accident.
“The pain will pass in time,” Mrs. O’Brien is advised, “Life goes on.” But time in The Tree of Life is hardly linear and the pain is at once expansive and definitive. The loss shapes the family and the film, which is fragmented, allusive, and abstract, transitioning from death to life, from future to past. Mrs. O’Brien appears as a child and as a mother, her husband a lover and a bully. A product of the American ‘50s, he’s inclined to philosophize (“People are getting greedy”), frighten and also adore his sons. Looking forward and back, the adult Jack talks on cell phones, rides on glass elevators and, as he puts it, feels “like I’m bumping into walls.” He remembers—or you see—good and bad times with his father, fearful pauses at the dinner table, the boy’s resistance leading to Mr. O’Brien’s eruption. If dad doesn’t make a calculation, as the dinosaur appears to do, his assault is just as unfathomable, both anticipated and startling.
As the boys struggle to appease and avoid their father, Mrs. O’Brien describes her experience. Like Badlands Holly, she observes the mayhem around her, here embodied by her husband and visited on her children. She appears as a child and a mother, her voiceover poetic and desperate. “Life of my life,” she says, as the dinosaur steps away from its victim, and the screen cuts to planets, rings, and moons. “I search for you. My hope.” Her questions reflect her son’s dilemma. Resenting and mimicking his father’s cruelty, he bullies R.L, then apologizes, runs from and then confronts his father. “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” he asks. The answer, adult Jack sees, is his mother: “You spoke through her.”
Jack is awed by his mother’s capacity to “bear” her loss. The film pictures this capacity in images great and small. As striking and quaint as the celestial imagery may be, the splitting of nature and grace into dad and mom appears fundamentally banal. Ever mysterious in men’s evocations, mothers might as well be planets or sunspots, explosive, distant, and alluring. Here the formulation is complicated, as Mrs. O’Brien is conflated in her husband’s and her boys’ estimations, partly otherworldly, partly unknowable, and partly mundane. If none of them sees clearly, each sees partly. She’s not the prosaically exotic object of The New World, but she’s strange and wondrous too. She’s not real, and she’s not herself. She’s theirs.
Jack’s complicated view—of his mother and father, of women because of them—is rendered in a specific instance, as he watches a neighbor through her window, berated by her husband, and so familiar, but also other. Appalled and titillated, he’s moved to steal into her home and run off with one of her slips. Horrified by what he’s done and how he feels, he can’t be rid of the evidence soon enough, afraid to be found out and also beside himself with desire.
The film—so admirably ambitious and so frustratingly limited—returns repeatedly to this idea that children are made by parents (and in turn, that everyone is part of a universal always-already). “I want to know what you know,” Jack whispers. “I want to see what you see.” If this is faith, that you can see, Mr. O’Brien voices its opposite. “The world lives by trickery,” he asserts, presuming another sort of order, so he can aspire to decipher it. It’s the same impulse as the Christian’s, refigured as the capitalist’s. He wants to succeed (Jack will eventually become an architect, busy with work and distant from both his ex and his wife). Urging his sons to be men, to fight, Mr. O’Brien tells each to “Hit me,” his face earnest, theirs uneasy. His version of manhood, like his wife’s version of motherhood, is idealized and conceptual, and the boys are lost.
“Tell us a story from before we can remember,” a son instructs. It’s a pretty way to phrase the movie’s structure and its hope, that stories, made up and maybe true, can help you to remember, to see, to know. If Mrs. O’Brien is able to “bear” her loss—her ongoing loss of self and peace, even beyond the loss of her son—because she has faith, Mr. O’Brien bears loss in other ways, unrecognized by Jack, but visible in his memory.