Small in the Family: ‘The Tree of Life’

It’s the main philosophical question that plagues man: where do I belong? In the universe. In the world. In my own life. It’s esoteric and ever present, seemingly answerable and yet always just out of conscious reach. As a result of our reflection, as a means of making sense out of the frequently incomplete answers and ambiguous revelations, we fill the void: With job. With God. With family. With friends and formal acquaintances. And yet the matter remains – always there, hanging over our head and troubling our already complicated existence. Who am I? What am I? And is there anything beyond our limited time here?

All these issues, and many more, are addressed in Terrence Malik’s daring cinematic sketchbook The Tree of Life. Tackling subjects as broad as the birth of the Universe and as small as one troubled boy’s relationship with his abusive, button down father (Brad Pitt), this terrific tone poem is a compelling combination of images and ideas, of addressing concerns without actually stating the question or the conclusion. In Malick’s mesmerizing conundrum, he posits the beginning of time with spending a confusing childhood in ’50s era Texas. He turns faith in a higher power against the pragmatics of reality in a way they argues for both of their importance – and their mutual lack of satisfaction.

The main narrative thread does indeed center on a family that has just lost a loved one. Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is a successful architect in an unnamed city and is struggling with the death of his younger brother. As he reflects back on his youth, on a father (Pitt) who wanted to be a musician but was stuck working in a factory, to an angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) who used God and the church as a salve for everything and anything while providing unconditional, unquestioned love, he contemplates his own mortality. We are then taken to the Big Bang, the development of the galaxies, the evolution of life on Earth, and the eventual destruction of the dinosaurs. Using his memories, Jack reconciles with his past and the many people who’ve moved through it. He then looks forward to a path toward possible contentment.

Because of its unconventional style, its desire to infer instead of tell an outright story, The Tree of Life will leave some audiences ice cold. Those expecting spoon fed lessons in love and tolerance, who want their prehistory more along the lines of Jurassic Park, will grow antsy with Malick’s symphonic pace and vast production dynamic. Like the light show sequence in 2001 combined with said film’s last act and a vague collection of Ike era nostalgia, this is neither a definitive statement or a purposeful arthouse affront. Instead, Malik appears to be doing the same thing that Kubrick did with his epic sci-fi statement – arguing that the appearance of man on Earth marks a miracle of evolutionary design, a concept that in and of itself sets all other facets of the Universe on end.

In 2001, it was aliens who acted as a catalyst. It was their drive to make contact (and prepare themselves for same) in conjunction with a new form of manmade intelligence that expanded our understanding of who we are. In The Tree of Life, Malick is clearly referencing God. He is using the standard storyline of how life began, but he is also addressing our need for something beyond mere scientific explanation. Without extraterrestrials laying the foundation, the director defers to the age old idea of divine intervention. When the O’Brien family learns of their son’s death, a plea goes out. Why? Why him? Why now? Why not someone else (Jack, perhaps?).

The answer makes up the middle act of the movie. From the time we see the start of our cosmos, as the first fiery vestiges of a galaxy come into being, the message is made clear. The Creator has enough on his plate handling the big things. The “little” concerns of the O’Brien family cannot trump this trip through the beginning of all things. Yes, the Lord is there to hear your prayers and listen to your concerns, but when you’ve got planets to move about and single-celled organisms to jump start, your boy’s bad behavior (or more horrifically, death) takes a backseat. Malick makes a strong case for both Darwin and a deity here. Much of the visual sensational is textbook. Much of the feeling is angelic.

The correlation to the O’Brien family is also evident. Pitt’s father figure is both compassionate and vengeful, always focusing on the big picture of his potential career (and success) than on the wants and needs of his growing boys. He’s the God that Jack is always trying to please, and when that worship results in a less than meaningful reaction, the young boy retaliates. It’s intriguing to watch, like moving illustrations from an educator’s guide to parenting circa 1958. As Jack fumbles with who he is and where he fits in his Dad’s plans, the outward allusions to the entirety of mankind are clear. There is compassion and hurt. There are moments of senseless violence and acts of repentance and contrition. Jack just wants to understand. In the O’Brien family, connections are a matter of faith.

In fact, The Tree of Life could also be viewed as a dream logic dissertation on belief, about how it shapes our sensibilities while avoiding the obvious influence of the day to day distractions. Jack believes in his dad, with little or no response in return. The O’Briens believe in God, with a similar result. Yet the stridence of their faith, the flawed facility to keep praying with no consequence or answer marks the movie’s main theme. Sometimes, belief is an act in and of itself. You don’t need a God or figurehead to quantify it. The inherent good in belief will always outweigh the lack of legitimate results. Told in a way that raises as many concerns as conclusions, it’s stunning to behold.

Indeed, all of The Tree of Life is museum quality. It’s the old Masters making movies for audiences unaccustomed to creating their own intelligent connections. It’s a tour de force and an experiment in insularity, a chance for a famed filmmaker to create a grand personal proclamation and then sit back to see how people respond. It’s beautiful. It’s moving. It’s period piece beats are beyond reproach. This is not some rose-colored view of hard times and hope. It’s also not some philosophical think piece buried in a bunch of spectacular special effects. No, at its core, The Tree of Life is the result of an adult life contemplating where one belongs. The joys linger on the deconstruction, not the discoveries.

RATING 8 / 10