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Film / The Tree of Life

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"Help each other. Love everyone.
Every leaf. Every ray of light.

"There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow."
Mrs. O'Brien

The Tree of Life is a 2011 art film written and directed by Terrence Malick (his fifth film overall). The film was released after a lengthy production, originating in an unfinished 1970s project, being announced in 2005, and missing separate 2009 and 2010 release dates before ultimately premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or.

At its core, the de facto central character of the film is Jack (Sean Penn), a middle-aged man still working through scars from his rough upbringing, including an untimely tragedy. A large portion of the film recounts this upbringing by focusing on Jack's family in 1950s suburban Texas, composed of him, his brothers R.L. and Steve, and his parents.

Jack's father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), tries to toughen him up for the harsh realities of the world through strict discipline, while his mother, Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), exudes love and mercy. His struggles in reconciling their contrasting worldviews are amplified by the life experiences he goes through, forcing him to confront how he processes love, suffering, death, and the loss of innocence. While the film focuses on the highs and lows of the entire family, it's Jack's coming of age that serves as a through line.

This storyline, however, is just one thread in the film's thematic explorations, which primarily deal with the questions of humanity's place in the universe (dating back to the beginning of time) and its complicated relationship with God. This is achieved through extended sequences of abstract, nonverbal, and often Scenery Porn-filled imagery, such that many have called the film the 21st-century equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Apart from the similar thematic focuses, both films also feature work from visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull, whom Malick had actually convinced to come out of retirement.)

In late 2018, The Tree of Life was re-released by The Criterion Collection in a set containing a 4K digital restoration of the film and an extended cut with 50 added minutes, largely composed of never-before-seen footage with new characters and scenes as well as modifications of existing scenes, music, and color grading. Malick has gone on record stating that this cut of the film should be viewed as an alternative version, and not the definitive one.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Jack's father, when he's "defied".
  • An Aesop: The general consensus is that the answer to the meaning behind man's existence that the film claims is love.
  • Angst: Adult Jack. He has little interest in his life and situation, and is still deeply affected by his childhood and the loss of his brother.
  • Age-Appropriate Angst: Young Jack. Watching a friend die and dealing with abusive parents causes him to lash out against spirituality and his family in realistic ways, though his philosophy doesn't elevate past anything you expect of a kid.
  • 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 humans.
    "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
  • Blessed with Suck: Mankind. And yet, at the same time, the film still has a hopeful tone.
  • Book Ends: The mysterious flame-like light flickering in the darkness.
  • 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.
  • Death of a Child: R.L. dies offscreen early in the film, and it devastates the family, most of all Mrs. O'Brien, who visibly crumples after hearing the news.
  • Distant Prologue: It begins simply enough, and then the Big Bang happens. Literally.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It's largely implicit and abstract, but the film seems to end with Jack changing his perspective on the world, gathering the strength to forgive his father, reconciling with his family, and finding a new lease on life in the name of hope and love.
  • 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: What with its incredibly expansive themes and visuals, although its meditative pace makes it a relatively more subdued example 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.
  • For the Evulz: One interpretation of Jack breaking into an unoccupied home, then stealing a dress from it and sending it down a river.
  • Freudian Excuse: Oh yeah. Jack is very attached to his mother, and idealizes her in his memories. "She only loves ME!", which he yells at his father, reeks of Freudian competition
  • Gainax Ending: The finale involves Jack leaving work and having a vision where he follows a young girl across rocky terrain, steps through a wooden door frame on rock to see a view of the future where the sun expands into a red giant, follows the girl and a younger version of him across varying landscapes, sees the dead return to life, is reunited with his family, and brings his young brother to his parents, after which his mother prays and says, "I give him to you. I give you my son." The film then cuts back to reality, ending on an image of a suspension bridge. Yeah.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: Jack's father 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.
  • 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 Name: Jack's initials are J.O'B.
  • Metaphysical Place: The heavenly beach, the vast desert Adult Jack wanders through, that weird field with styrofoam-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 scene in which the mother is floating and dancing in the front yard.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Philosophical Parable: It's a story that fully supports Creationism. Opening with a quotation from The Bible, it explores the Christian duality of human nature —the conflict between people's sinful nature and the grace God gifted them. It ends by vindicating God, aka doing theodicy, by concluding that God is always aiming for perfection and beauty that cannot be grasped by human minds. The characters, a troubled but stereotypical family of The '50s, represent this when they discover that the solution to their problems is love (God's prime mandate).
  • Rage Breaking Point: After Mr. O'Brien is told by his son to "be quiet," he launches into a terrifying rage.
  • Random Events Plot: The film flashes back from Adult Jack's situation to the Big Bang, then to random events in his childhood that have little link other than explaining his relationship to God and family.
  • Scenery Porn: Exaggerated with incredible cinematography, every frame is a fluid painting, and special mention goes to the field of sunflowers and the beach.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: Melancholia is regarded as this, to the point where it gained the status as this movie's rival. As The Tree of Life concerns about the correlation of humanity's empathy to the creation of the universe, Melancholia concerns about the correlation of humanity's cruelty to the end of the universe. Both being arthouse films with several shots of the universe with special effects didn't help.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.