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Film / The Tree of Life

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"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

A 2011 Terrence Malick film, equal parts a period piece, a family drama, and an existentialist meditation. It stars Brad Pitt as a strict, disciplinarian father in Fifties Texas, with 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.


On August 28th, 2018, The Criterion Collection announced that they'll be releasing the movie along with a new cut with 50 extra minutes.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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 humans.
    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?
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  • 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.
  • Distant Prologue: It begins simply enough, and then the Big Bang happens. Literally.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The rare example where this overlaps with the "what the fuck does this mean" ending.
  • 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.
  • Freudian Excuse: Oh yeah. "She only loves ME!"
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: See Gainax Ending
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Father seems to be one of these.
  • 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.
  • Yin-Yang Clash: "The way of nature, and the way of grace."


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