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Film: The Tree of Life
Mrs. O'Brien

A 2011 Terrence Malick film, equal parts a period piece, a family drama, and an existentialist meditation. It stars Brad Pitt as a strict, disciplinary father, Jessica Chastain as a kind, nurturing mother, newcomer child-actor Hunter McCracken as their son Jack, and Sean Penn as Jack in his adult years. Directed by reclusive director Terrence Malick, the man behind Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, it is his fifth feature in a career spanning decades.

The Tree of Life begins as a normal family drama, but in just a little while in it transforms into a gallery of jaw-dropping images and Scenery Porn related to the Beginning Of The Universe. Some have called it this generation's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Much like that film, it contemplates man's place in the universe, and it can be considered one of the few "big-budget art-house films". Also like that film, it features work by legendary visual effects artist Douglas Trumbal (the man responsible for the Star Gate sequence) who Malick had actually convinced to come out of retirement.


This film provides examples of:

  • Absolutely Happened: Averted in the film's climax. But that whole Dawn of Time thing; yeah, that probably happened.
  • Abusive Parents: Jack's father, when he's "defied".
  • An Aesop: Turns out, the answer to the meaning behind man's existence is love.
  • Angst: Adult Jack.
  • Age-Appropriate Angst: Young Jack.
  • Arc Words:
    • "The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace".
    • "Where were you?"
    • "Brother..."
  • As the Good Book Says: The movie starts off with a quote from the Book of Job, to set the theme about the role of God in the universe and how God's way is often incomprehensible to human
    Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
  • Billing Displacement: Sean Penn is billed second but appears in only about five minutes of the film.
  • Blessed with Suck: Mankind. And yet, at the same time, the film still has a hopeful tone.
  • Book Ends: The coooolooors...
  • Chekhov's Gun: "There are two ways through life. The way of nature, and the way of grace..."
  • Cosmic Plaything: Jack; though the viewer can argue that the Cosmic Plaything in question is everyone
  • Crapsack World: Juxtaposes nicely with A World Half Full
  • Decoy Protagonist: Zig-zagged. Jack's parents (particularly his mother) are the POV characters until the focus switches to Adult Jack who is given several minutes of build-up before the focus abruptly switches back to his mother (who monologues during the Big Bang/Creation sequence), and then finally settles on Young Jack for most of the movie. Then, in the last few minutes, the focus shifts back to Adult Jack, then to the Mother, and finally back to Adult Jack during the final seconds.
  • Development Hell: Malick began work on a project enigmatically entitled Q before making The Thin Red Line, only for it to come to a halt. Apparently, Malick used Q as a basis for The Tree of Life, which was finally officially announced in 2005, only to have casting issues, gathering up a Dream Team of visual effects artists to achieve his vision, and then work very, very slowly to make everything as good as possible. In short, he's a perfectionist.
  • Distant Prologue: It begins simply enough, and then the Big Bang happens. Literally.
  • Doing It for the Art: Hmmm, you don't say...
  • Earthy Barefoot Character: Jack's mom, though when she's at home she wears shoes. But when she is barefoot she's usually standing in nature.
  • Epic Movie: Albeit relatively more subdued than most
  • Ethereal Choir / Ominous Latin Chanting: Lacrimosa, part of the Dies Irae sequence of the Requiem mass (composed by several different artists, but most famously Mozart) places over several scenes.
  • Everything's Better with Dinosaurs: Much was made about their appearance in the movie. In truth, they're only in it for a minute or two and we only see two species at that. (They are at least not-so popular genera.)
  • For the Evulz: One interpretation of Jack breaking into an unoccupied home, then stealing a dress from it and sending it down a river.
  • Gainax Ending: Once again, you have no idea. Okay, so while everyone in the audience should be pretty certain that the finale involving the heavenly beach, Adult Jack chasing his younger self in the desert, and his mother's prayers are all either a Heroic BSOD or some sort of variation of that, it doesn't make it any less baffling. Audiences will be divided. You'll either feel at one with the universe, or like you're just being shown completely random images.
  • Gray and Gray Morality: Brad Pitt's character may be a jerk at times, but it's because he cares a bit too much for his kids. Young Jack can be just as jerkish as well, but whether it's from the abuse and expectations of his father, his first time experiencing death and realizing we all don't live forever, or just from general Angst is up to the viewer.
  • Heaven: At least the ending can be interpreted that way.
  • Heroic BSOD: The viewer can argue that the minute Adult Jack ascends in the elevator, the Heroic BSOD begins.
  • I Want My Sons To Be Real Men: Played with. At first, Mr. O'Brian plays this straight, such as trying to teach his kids how to fight. As the movie progresses, he starts to accept that he's doing it more for himself, and promises to be a better father.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Once Jack's father leaves for a business trip, he and his friends start to drift into crueler acts, like blowing up birds' eggs or tying a frog to a rocket.
  • Living Prop: Jack has a wife, but all she does in the film is get dressed for work and leave.
  • Meaningful Funeral: One of the many important events building to Young Jack's loss of innocence.
  • Meaningful Name: Jack's initials are J.O'B.
  • Metaphysical Place: The heavenly beach, the vast desert Adult Jack wanders through, that weird field with styrofoamy-looking rocks or plants or whatever those are supposed to be. Expect this to pop up a lot.
  • Mind Screw: Not just the Gainax Ending, but a few brief, but glaringly noticeable shots such as the underwater house shot signifying Jack's birth and one very random scene in which the mother is floating and dancing in the front yard. Why? Because True Art Is Incomprehensible
  • Mommy Issues: Oh yeah. "She only loves ME!"
  • Monochrome Casting: Approximately 3 of the over 120 minutes of this movie feature non-white people onscreen.
  • Montage: Like most of Malick's films, this one could be considered one long Montage.
  • Motif: It's a Terrence Malick movie, therefore, expect lots of gorgeous shots of nature and Scenery Porn.
    • Oh yeah, and expect it to be long, and feel long.
    • In particular, the ambiguous flame imagery
  • Mother Nature, Father Science: Jack's parents embody the Yin-Yang Clash; his father is the Way of Nature and his mother is the Way of Grace.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Ye gods. As if the constant Ethereal Choir over family picnics and kids playing wasn't enough, a tense family dinner is played to swift classical music, which may or not have actually been in the scene.
  • No Name Given: Only Jack is given a name within the story; the other brothers' names and the family surname are only revealed in the credits: R.L. and Steve O'Brien.
  • Non Linear Story: It's about as linear as the goddamn Navier–Stokes equations.
  • Philosophical Parable: See An Aesop above.
  • Rage Breaking Point: "Be quiet."
  • Random Events Plot
  • Rule of Symbolism
  • Scenery Porn: Taken Up to Eleven
  • Something Completely Different: See Gainax Ending
  • Stalking Is Love: Jack gets a crush on a fellow classmate and follows her home. Later he spies on through her house's windows and sees her father yelling at her mother. Lastly, he enters their house while her family's gone.
  • Standard '50s Father: A rather grim example, also including elements of Dad the Veteran (although he is still in active service during the movie, it seems) and Tough Love.
  • Stunt Casting: Sean Penn as a guy with about 10-or-less non-consecutive minutes of screen time and barely one line of dialogue in an over-2-hour movie. Penn has gone on record saying that his role in the final cut contributed nothing to the film and served no purpose; he also mentioned that, in light of this, he was at a loss as to why the director didn't cut him out altogether.
  • Tempting Fate: Kid, if you think that putting your finger in front of a BB gun will result in anything other than pain and misery, your loss.
    • Averted earlier with Jack's brother being dared to poke a wire into a lamp without the lightbulb. He's initially suspicious, but even after licking his finger and poking it in, still nothing happens.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Practically everyone in the movie at some point but especially Jack.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Adult Jack's narration suggests that this applies to the brother who died in Vietnam.
  • Trippy Finale Syndrome: And what a trip it is...
  • Victorious Childhood Friend: Perhaps averted. Jack's wife when he's an adult doesn't seem to be the girl he crushed on at school; she looked Hispanic, and Jack never even spoke to her.
  • Vision Quest: This troper shall say it again. See Gainax Ending
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Father seems to be one of these.
  • What Could Have Been: See Development Hell.
    • A specific example: Heath Ledger was originally cast as Mr. O'Brien, and his death put the production into a tailspin before Brad Pitt volunteered to take the part.
    • Another specific example: The original cut was said to be over 4 hours long, and Adult Jack (Sean Penn) had a much, much larger role. Penn can barely even relate the script he read and the cut they released to be the same movie.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: There are many quick visuals and suggestions of bigger stories that are merely glimpsed and then never revisited, including: a man has a seizure on the family's front lawn, and the mother prevents her children from seeing it; a man is arrested as the entire town watches; a house burns down and a young boy, one of the brothers' friends, suffers burns on his head, and more. Also, we never find out which brother died.
    • Although it's never clarified, from Mr and Mrs O' Brien's reactions to seeing him on the beach coupled with the emphasis on his and Jack's relationship it is presumably the blonde slightly younger brother who kicks the bucket.
  • A World Half Full
  • The World Is Just Awesome: The Dawn of Time
  • World Tree: Despite the title, it's mostly averted.
    • Although there is an awful lot of shots of trees, many of them positioned so that the tree takes up most of the frame.
  • Write What You Know: Malick grew up in Waco, Texas which is where the film is set. Like Mr. O'Brien, Malick's father gave up on his aspirations of becoming a musician but played the organ at his church. Also, Malick's brother died (suicide) when he was a young man, much like Jack's brother R.L. His other brother was badly burned in a car accident, which may have inspired the badly burned neighborhood boy.
  • Yin-Yang Clash: "The way of nature, and the way of grace."

MoneyballAcademy AwardWar Horse
The Thin Red LineEpic MovieTitanic
Tower HeistFilms of the 2010sThe Way Back

alternative title(s): The Tree Of Life
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