By MICAH CLASPER-TORCHTerrence Malick’s long awaited film The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, is a moving, abstract journey through one man's recollections of his childhood experience, love, loss, and his relationship with his family. In the works for over a decade and delayed from its intended opening in 2009, the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival this past May where it was awarded the prestigious Palme d'Or.
"Experience it like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature.” Malick suggested in an interview about experiencing his film. If that sounds vague and a little confusing, it’s because that’s precisely what the movie is. Aside from the general consensus for the beautifully moving cinematic masterpiece, there's certainly a variation of opinions regarding the storyline.
At its core, the focus of The Tree of Life is on Jack (played by Sean Penn), a boy growing up in the 1950’s with his family in Waco, Texas. The movie alternates between, the adult version of Jack, and him as boy—sifting through his memories of his childhood relationships with his brothers, and his parents (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain).
The subtext of the film is about nature and grace, and the way these themes reoccur—not only throughout humanity, but through the history of our world. "There are two ways through life—the way of nature, and the way of grace," a woman’s voice tells us as the film begins.
"Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it," Whereas, "Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries."
As the film progresses, we see that nature is personified in Jack’s father, while grace is epitomized in the mother. A serious and stoic man, the father sees his life as a series of disappointments and failures. His personal unhappiness is projected onto his sons; and in response, Jack struggles as he regards his father with both love and hate.
In contrast, Jack’s mother is loving and unselfish; and her boys view her as an oasis of comfort and calm in an otherwise confusing and stormy adolescence. Jack’s perception of his parents is symbolically internalized within his own inner battles with embodying either nature versus grace. It is this central thread that ties together the movie which can, at times, seem otherwise disconnected.
Malick’s cinematography and artistic sensibility is what elevates The Tree of Life to another level. Throughout the film, the context is vague and the dialogue sparse, giving the viewer a sense that they are peeking into Jack’s childhood as he would remember it—in flashes, in bits and pieces—beautifully illustrated through a series of dream-like sequences and vignettes. It is in these moments that the movie truly succeeds: the gentle innocence of childhood, the interaction between brothers alternating between tenderness and cruelty, the adolescent aggression that arises, the sexual explorations and the subsequent shame, the internal tug of war between loving your father or mother and yet dreading that you could end up just like them.
"Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me, always you will." The struggle between nature and grace is something most of us might face—which may strike a deep personal nerve for some people—and it is also what makes the movie compelling. In the end, The Tree of Life is quite simply a beautiful, thought provoking cinematic experience well worth seeing.
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