I’m just going to be honest with you here–I’ve been trying for a week to get my thoughts on The Tree of Life into some sort of coherent form so I could share them with you, but so far it’s been an abysmal failure. It is a movie that exists, for me, in a place so dictated by emotional response that even the most thoughtful expression in words seems to lose the immediacy of my response.
So I’m not going to try. Instead I’m just going to talk, hopefully at far less length than I have in my attempts, to share something of what I took out of this film.
The Tree of Life is the new film by Terrence Malick and is, at its core, about a man named Jack played by Sean Penn. On the anniversary of his older brother’s death, he reminisces about his childhood growing up in 1950s Texas and the struggle he had growing up between two radically opposed parents (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). This is all framed within Jack’s prayers, both as a child and an adult, trying to question why the universe is the way it is.
And even then, I feel like that hardly explains what the movie is about. The film is a deep rumination on meaning and purpose, asking big questions and providing little answers. When Jack asks to the universe ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What am I to you?’ the universe, or God, or Malick or whatever you want to read into it, answers with a stunning montage of the birth of the universe, the formation of Earth, the development of life upon it leading to Jack’s birth and childhood.
That’s the kind of film it is. It’s about broad ideas, meditations on humanity in the scope of eternity. But it is also an exploration of the very intimate moments of Jack’s childhood growing up. And that, more than anything, is where I found the real heart of the film lies.
Jack grows up in constant conflict with his father. Brad Pitt plays the unnamed father as a man who clearly loves his children but has a very hard time showing it. He’s emotionally volatile and inexpressive, with a short temper and a stern philosophy to bringing up his children. He isn’t a bad man or a bad father, but through Jack’s eyes he’s a tyrant who can never be impressed or made proud of his sons.
On the opposite level is Jessica Chastain, who plays Jack’s mother as something closer to an angel than a woman. She floats through the screen, full of light and elegance and a sense of unknowable Otherness. Jack loves her dearly but we’re given the sense that as he grows up he never really comes to understand her, pulling away and seeing her more and more as an idea of herself, a spectre of beauty and love.
What I connected to so much, and what I found so perfect and moving, was the relationship between Jack and his father. It mirrored in many ways the relationship I had with my own father growing up. He is an older man, 50 when I was born, a man who had lived life and seemed incredibly capable and terrifying in his confidence. He was a man, much like Brad Pitt’s character, who wanted his children to be better people than he was, and held them to sometimes unreasonable standards of conduct to teach them lessons.
Like me, and like most children, Jack sees his father’s expectations as unsurvivable oppression. All children feel at some point, I think, that their childhood is the end of the world. And Jack is at the age where frustration and confusion begin to express themselves as bursts of anger. There is a scene where his father is working under a car, and Jack stares longingly at the jack of the car. How easy it would be to remove the oppressor. Jack falters, but prays that his father will be struck down. It’s a petty thing to want, ignorant and thoughtless.
But such is the weird place where a child begins to develop their own morality. Jack seems to be growing much like his father, stubborn and temperamental, prone to acting without considering what his outbursts will do to others. This comes to a head when he shoots his brother with a BB gun seemingly out of spite more than anything, but his brother’s immediate and pained reaction is the birth of compassion within Jack, much like the birth of the universe we witnessed. It is an equal thing of wonder, watching this boy who had been so angry and so lost comforting his younger brother, carrying him through a field home, both weeping not in pain but in anguish and guilt and realization.
It’s that event that brings Jack into an understanding with his father, his step towards an adult understanding of the universe. They have a moment of understanding where Jack sees himself as his father’s son, though we know from the Jack of middle age that he and his father never have a comforting relationship. Jack’s father never seems to change, perhaps incapable of it. But Jack knows what he is, the awareness a weight upon him that seems to follow him into Sean Penn’s understated performance of Jack as an adult, seemingly weary of the entire world.
All of this probably sounds incredibly convoluted yet shockingly simple, and that’s really the key to understanding the film. For all its nonlinear narrative and complexities of composition, it is a tale about growth and about struggle to comprehend and about compassion. Jack’s mother says to them as the extended flashback ends in the film that the key to life is love. Its a lesson Jack has already learned, though he doesn’t seem to quite know it yet, because he loves differently than his mother does.
It is in the present that Sean Penn’s older Jack realizes this, a moment of catharsis where he leaves his sterile, modernist office and heads outside, standing in the courtyard of between skyscrapers, looking at a garden and a tree much like those of his childhood, the world rising up around him wheeling about him much like the cosmos. There is an extended sequence near the end about the death of the universe and a softly expressed vision of the afterlife that plays out with a montage of the people in the film that reminds one of Fellini, but it is only an elaboration on what we already know. Jack’s grace and salvation is the people he carries with him, the lives he holds and who have brought him to this place, where wonder is there if only he’ll see it.
And that’s the film in its basic nutshell. It seems so elementary a point that one might overlook it, but the whole point is to bring us back to it through endless permutations and the scope of time itself. Malick looks upon the universe, upon life itself, as a thing of wonder. We are asked to do the same, shown one way it expresses itself, never perfect but often full of awe, a culmination of billions of years leading to a single boy running through the grass feeling torn between his two creators despite always and forever being an amazing product of both. As are we all.
It’s an earnest and heartfelt and humble message, delivered with an emotional thoughtfulness that flies against the grain of the rampant intellectualism that usually denotes art films of this type. It is not a film for everyone, it is not seeking easy understanding or universal appeal. In fact, I imagine someone with a different life experience would take wildly different things from it. I saw myself and my father as we were, him trying his best to teach and me unable to perceive non-permissiveness as love.
Thankfully I grew up to understand my father and we reached a place where we can communicate and understand each other in our own way. Jack’s moment of connection felt much like that, not nostalgic but poignant and fondly remembered now that I sit here as an adult looking back. But there is more to the film than that, things I didn’t even touch upon. Because in a film that contains within it the whole of the universe, how could I possibly hope to encompass everything? I can only look on in wonder.