Originally, I wrote this article for Faith Online at The Times on July 1st, 2011.
Terrence Malick’s eye-catching epic captures the spiritual struggle between grace and nature
Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life (12A) is nothing short of revolutionary. It abandons narrative structure, is almost entirely lacking in plot, but centres on a modest Catholic family, The O’Briens, in 1950’s small town Texas.
The film begins in the microcosm of O’Brien family life, when they are staggering from the news that their second son, a gentle, musical youngster has died at the tender age of 19. Malick then jumps to a macrocosmic perspective - by uniting this tragic death to collages depicting the dawning of the universe. There is no script for this 20-minute section, showing life’s progress from mere cells to jellyfish, and then to dinosaurs. It lurches back to Mrs O’Brien giving birth to her eldest boy, Jack in the 1950s.
We get to know the O’Brien family, where the characters are personifications of the perceived struggle between grace and nature. Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) represents brute nature, an overbearing patriarch, soured by his failed ambitions, and too demanding of his young sons. Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is an angelic, ageless, slender matriarch who characterises saintly grace. She tirelessly nurtures her three children and stands in the way of the father when he is at his most vile. She is heard saying; “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” The film is seen through the eyes of their eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken), and his lifelong fight to be reconciled with the two forces his parents embody.
Brad Pitt’s role as Mr O’Brien verges on the stereotypical authoritarian father who persists in making his children tough, squashes their spontaneous characters; insist they call him ‘sir’, and locks is wife in a painful arm wrestle when she prevents him from punching them. One scene demonstrates the fear Jack has for Mr O’Brien, and the film’s central flaw. It shows Mr O’Brien lying underneath a car, and tinkering with the engine. The son’s attention is captured by the jack propping up the car. He knows that if he sets it down, the car will crush his father. The son grapples with the temptation, but resists it nonetheless. But, in the same way, the intense relationship between the dictatorial father and the oppressed son engulfs and threatens to defeat the true experience of the film. Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult, who is a successful architect. Penn adopts these weighed-down, twisted postures, demonstrating that Jack has been moulded from flinching under his father.
They are practising, conventional Catholics, in a 1950’s mode of wearing netted lace hats to Mass and routinely receiving the sacraments. They listen in total silence to a priest’s sermon on the story of Job. The priest confirms the Catholic understanding of Job’s plight; that his trials were not punishments and that hardship comes mysteriously to good and bad people. They are Catholics more by traditional practice, then by consistent Catholic thought. Coming home from Mass in the car, the father undermines the priest’s sermon by cynically telling the boys that good people are the ones punished. Jack in particular questions the point of goodness, and experiments by being mischievousness. Is it okay to misbehave by jumping from pew to pew in the local church, or by sneaking into a house and rifling through a woman’s undergarments, as long as his father isn’t there to overreact and punish?
The O’Briens watch as a little boy is taken dead from a local swimming hole, and Jack asks; “Lord, where were You? Why? Who are we to You?” Malick’s triumph is that Jack’s spontaneous, childlike questions do not challenge belief in God, but seek to clarify our role as His creatures.
There is a preoccupation with footage of middle-aged Jack riding cage-like elevators in metropolitan corporate towers, contrasting with the child Jack being overwhelmed by the natural world of the riverbank, or his front lawn. The suggestion being; has our obsession with urban edifices, replaced our wonder of nature? Indeed, is there a certain vanity and pointlessness to man-made high-rise buildings; we can build higher into the sky, but never come closer to the Divine? Do we closet ourselves in concrete, while separating ourselves from the Creator’s glorious natural surroundings? Good questions, but not in praise of man’s God-given ingenuity, and with resounding pessimistic overtones.
The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes film festival, undoubtedly sets stratospheric standards for filmmaking and will become a classic among professional filmmakers and photographers. An emerging cliché is that every frame of a Malick movie could be a painting. This is not a Hollywood blockbuster, but fine art. But for the average viewing public, the film may suffer from having too much of a good thing. Malick’s signature imagery, while initially holding the viewer in wide-eyed wonder, is too prolonged and too dominant, and risks inflicting eye-strain.
While we follow Jack on his lifelong struggle to choose between the way of grace and the way of nature, is there really a choice? Or at our human level, do we contrive that such a choice exists? It was the union of Mr O’Brien (nature) and Mrs O’Brien (grace) that brought their sons into the world. Their marriage is a view of the universe in microcosm. Throughout The Tree of Life, there is the atmosphere of nature and grace being in opposition to each other, but the film arrives at demonstrating that not only are they intrinsically linked, they are essentially and inexplicably so.
12A, 139 minutes
See more from The Times Faith Online here.