The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life begins with a quotation from The Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” This epigraph is later followed by a half-hour reverie of the birth of our world: a spiritually rich montage, or tour of the universe. Cells evolve, star systems and galaxies form (through the use of many glorious Hubble Space Telescope images), jellyfish swim, volcanoes erupt and dinosaurs carve out territories on prehistoric beaches – all set to the reverent sounds of Mahler, Berlioz, Mozart, Bach, Holst and other heavenly choirs.

The Tree of Life is only the fifth film release in nearly 40 years by the reclusive (Rhodes Scholar) Terrence Malick. His other films, beginning with 1973’s Badlands and continuing with Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, all share common elements of narration by one or more characters, nature as a major component and the films are all shot almost entirely outside.

At the center of the story is the O’Brien family. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain portray Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien who are raising three sons in an idyllic 1950’s small town in Texas. The film follows the life of the eldest son Jack as he leaves innocence behind for some very disenchanted adult years (portrayed as an adult by Sean Penn.) Jack’s search for answers is told in non-chronological scenes and whispered voiceovers that sound like prayers. The sublime Mrs. O’Brien tells the family: “There are two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one to follow. No one who loves the way of Grace will come to a bad end.” The Nature vs. Grace theme runs throughout the entire film (139 minutes) with Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien representing Nature and Grace respectively.

In the end, this incredibly beautiful film provides more questions than answers. Malick (who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford) has given us a visual experience with no real beginning or ending. The musings on God and the cosmic imagery are supported by the many reverent voiceovers which simultaneously satisfy and challenge the viewer. We are, however, given a vision of the afterlife (which appears to have been shot on Utah’s salt flats), full of dreamy and peaceful images.

This film is not for everyone. Its very slow pace and lack of linear plot will test the patience of many (as it did a large group of people sitting behind us, who eventually walked out on it), while others will be captivated by its beauty and reverence and will feel like saying a closing prayer at its conclusion.

“The only way to be happy,” whispers Mrs. O’Brien, “is to love.”