An ethereal flame flickers at the beginning and end of The Tree of Life – the creator watches over us. A shadow of death is cast upon the film’s central personalities – less characters but human conceptions of nature and grace, fierce will and love. The loss of a son, of a brother, sparks our voyage. We span through time, from the genesis of existence, to an Eden-like visage in Waco, Texas, to a stripped-down, ultra-modern present, to a beach where the dead walk. The images that bind these locales in place are of the most exquisite variety, though ambiguous in nature. There is a rationale in the way the images are laced together, particularly when characters, in hushed voice-over, ask God why? Malick thusly responds on His behalf, though such juxtaposition between present and past can be jarring.
In a way, The Tree of Life is a stream of consciousness. While there is an attempt at linearity through time, Malick moves between images with the utmost speed – his camera swoops in and out as the Earth is created, as dinosaurs roam, as a family endures, as a man is haunted by loss. Like memories, our ability to recall can sometimes only be contained in bits and pieces or we can recall every detail – this is when Malick stands still and holds.
Interpretations of the film are undoubtedly varied. My knee-jerk reaction was of confusion- so many lingering images seemed incompressible – the rush of waterfalls, the sun-flowers, etc. Reading more about the film and about Terrence Malick’s family history gives me a sense that the film is a confession – an attempt to reconcile the death of his own brother. Scenes with young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) contain such a breathtaking level of detail, beauty, and sincerity that it’s difficult not to become unhinged by their interactions. R.L., whose death begins the grieving process of the entirety of the film, is largely a blank slate. He plays the guitar, smiles from ear to ear when interacting with his brothers, and has a cloud of sadness lingering in his disposition. He is also the first one to openly defy his father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt). He refuses to partake in violence, avoids conflict with his Jack, and trusts him. These are the details that mark him, but little else is known – we gather this information from the scattered, memory-like trance in which Malick moves the film. Is this the way he remembers his brother?
The film’s larger conflict stems from the battle between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. Symbolic figures, Mr. O’Brien represent fierce will and determination; he instills these notions in his sons out of love. Such love is harsh, and misconstrued by the children as being vindictive. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the proverbial ying to Mr. O’Brien’s yang. Beauty and grace are the qualities she instills in her children, wherein kindness is her effective mode of parenthood. Unlike Mr. O’Brien, her emotions are open. But the two parents operate under contradictory terms, wherein the line in the sand is distinct – they are two opposing forces. This proves to be a causal element behind the present-day Jack’s (Sean Penn) emotional insecurities. As a child, the elements of nature and grace surround Jack – sunlight bathes his childhood, sewing together a gleaming sense of happiness when with his mother. But the fierce will of Jack’s father has overtaken nature – as an aging architect, Jack is surrounded by cold infrastructures and a barren existence.
All this leaves to question – is this film too much geared toward Malick’s personal perspective or does it carry a sense of universality? That’s a difficult question to answer, largely because while I may not share Malick’s spirituality or experience of Midwestern suburban life, I am able to appreciate his evocation of nature and portrayal of family. The crisis that Jack experiences as both a child and adult is expressed so viscerally that your senses may not be able to comprehend the anxiety, longing, anger, and love thrown at you – it’s without a doubt the most challenging of Malick’s filmography. Things may be spelled out in a clear way through voice-overs, but the images that couple the voices are often hard to decipher and emotionally ambiguous.
There’s only one emotional certainty throughout the film, and that’s in its conclusion - The Tree of Life ends on a note of optimism. My reading of it leads me to believe that despite the harshness of life, despite the loss and death that plagues us in our existence, the end of the road serves to unite us together. The path isn’t distinct – love and fierce will are not mutually exclusive. It’s not a distinct answer to what happens to us when we die, but rather one of hopefulness. We’ll encounter those that we love, past and present, leave things unspoken, and reconcile our differences. For most people, spiritual or not, that’s an afterlife that’s worth living for.