We follow 12-year-old Jack, the central character, growing up in small-town Texas in the 1950s, struggling with conflicted feelings toward his mercurial father: love and dread, both. Future flashes glimpse Jack’s adult self, still troubled by that boyhood genesis, reflecting on those years, and the emotional turbulence he has always felt, man and boy.
A Unique Coming-of-Age Reverie
The story is not so much a ‘story’ as a unique Coming-of-Age reverie that penetrates into those wistful mental caverns which, in some of us, long to be filled with a deeper understanding of our childhood experience. The movie fills us up in that way, so far as one may be in need of it… or open to it.
Writer/Director Terrence Malick is a master at filling such gaps in the psyche — gaps in understanding who we are, why we feel as we do — gaps in our self-knowledge that prevent us from feeling quite fulfilled.
It is the boy’s (and later, the man’s) almost excruciating need to understand the meaning of his sadness and his longings, and to re- experience his early feelings, that serves as a central conceit of The Tree of Life. Jack, the elder son (he has two younger brothers) alternately fears and adores his fearsomely hot-and-cold father—played with impressive nuance by Brad Pitt—a man frustrated by unrealized ambition, who tends to switch unpredictably between goodness and severity.
A passage in the Bible tells us to ‘Behold, the goodness and the severity of God.’ The film speaks of Jack’s search for the meaning behind such a ‘God’, and indeed his perplexity at why a ‘Father’ — earthly or heavenly—should demonstrate such conflicting dimensions. The boy’s longing to understand his contradictory father is sharply focused by the opposite nature of his mother, a fey and gracious creature, steadfast, and resigned to life’s ills — a nature diametrically opposed to that of her inconstant husband.
Young Boys As Complex, Epicene Beings
Malick projects an understanding of young boys as complex, epicene beings who often suffer profoundly when they have a conflict of identification with a difficult father. Boys especially can strongly resent a harsh father, and consequently resent their own muddled feelings toward him. Such a dilemma has led to the emotional ruin of many a man and boy.
The Tree Of Life is a glorious painting on film, a kind of life study, flashing-back between the grown-up Jack— a successful professional begrudging his beginnings— and his precociously reflective younger self. It is a grand meditation for which any complete analysis might fill a large book. No conventional plot advances the action; voice-over techniques are used, a device often decried by great auteurs but which, in the hands of a Terrence Malick, is made to be affecting and essential. The film’s ambition is enormous, going far beyond the life quest of an individual. It dares to explore deeper universal truths, questioning the nature of creation, of the universe, as the Biblical title might suggest.
The Tree of Life Movie Trailer
Malick has created a rare work here, a film that bears many viewings. Its stunning visual images and the vague, compellingly suggestive nature of the narrative seem to burn into one’s brain. Malick himself is a rarity: a Rhodes scholar, former philosophy professor, and a filmmaker often described as having the soul of an impressionist painter.
Released in 2011, the film has won rave critical reviews—and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, no less—but it has not won broader popular acclaim. Perhaps its unabashed spirituality turns off a wider public interest. The film’s intellectual ambiguity, and the quest of its central character for a religious understanding of life’s misfortunes and cruelties, may be too much for many people to accept and to digest in cinematic expression.
The Tree Of Life is indeed lachrymose, but it is also visually beautiful, and a true work of art. As such, its sadness is instructive, and strangely and stunningly uplifting.
Film title: The Tree of Life
Also known as: El árbol de la vida
Release year: 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan and others
Lindsay George Eaglesham is a freelance writer living in Ontario Canada