Climbing The Tree of Life

It’s been months since first viewing Terrence Malick’s magnum opus The Tree of Life, and it still lingers in the mind. It’s a metaphysical pilgrimage, a wonderfully nostalgic ode to childhood, a haunting mood piece, a surrealist drama, a meditative slow burn, and it’s the only film I can ever remember that handles the balancing act of being both incredibly disjointed, and wonderfully fluid.

So if you didn’t get the memo that I pretty much love everything about this movie to death, let’s repeat it: I love everything about this movie to death, the afterlife, and so on and so forth. And since it’s been spreading to more and more theaters each week, and it will inevitably be going to be releasing on DVD in one or two months (Hopefully in time to get recognition this coming awards season), I’ve decided to analyze the film in depth. Some things I will mention are quite obvious to anyone who paid close enough attention to the film, but there are a few shocking revelations that I’ve interpreted myself that should interest anyone who’s seen the film.


The most obvious comparison that everyone likes to make for Malick’s The Tree of Life is another magnum opus: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, I personally find that it’s one of those strange paradoxes where it’s simultaneously so similar to a film, yet so completely different.

What they share is an ambition that skyrockets to places that most films wouldn’t dare to venture into. 2001 dealt with the infinite scope of the cosmos, while The Tree of Life deals with that and even more. It also deals with the entire human race feeling lost in chaos, the essence of faith, the creation of all of life forming into something miraculous and beautiful, and that’s just the big stuff. In between, the film’s scope gets micro as it voyeurs into the life of the O’Brien family (Featuring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as father and mother) in the 1950s, specifically the birth and life of the eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken).

While the biggest talking points are the Dawn of Time sequence and the seemingly abstract ending, the unanimously best part of the film is the focus on Jack O’Brien and company. What Malick does is something that no other film maker has done nearly as well: He captures the essence of childhood perfectly. And I don’t use that term lightly. He captures it in the most perfect, honest, haunting way imaginable. All told with little to no dialogue, using a distinctly visual language that speaks volumes more than any mere words can convey.

These excursions into childhood have an extra layer of nostalgia when you realize that they are flashbacks of the older Jack O’Brien played by Sean Penn. Many have considered his scenes the weakest of the film, but I think that without him, the film would fall apart. The film’s jumbled structure makes sense in the context of a man sifting through his childhood memories, trying to put the pieces together, and attempting to discover what it was back then that made him feel so empty today.

We immediately identify with him, because those going into the film with the right mindset will feel the same nostalgia that Penn’s Jack O’Brien feels when he looks back at his childhood, and the main reason for that is because the film’s immersive quality makes you feel like you’re looking back at your very own childhood.

Everything is painted in a broad enough stroke for you to easily identify with at least one aspect of the childhood sequence, but because the canvas is so huge in size and scope, there is still an intimacy and sense of microscopic, minute detail that resonates all the way through, as Jack and his siblings explore the world around them.

When I think about it, I can spot similarities with my childhood. I obviously wasn’t born in the ’50s, nor did I have any male siblings. I was however, the oldest of two younger sisters, and there once was a time when my shut-in ass actually liked going outside. I like the relaxing walk every now and then, mind you, but if you visit me and I’m not hunched over my computer screen, watching a movie in the theater or otherwise, or holding a 360 controller in my hand, something is usually wrong.

As The Tree of Life was unraveling, I felt like I was slowly beginning to know this neighborhood the O’Briens lived in. A simple street in the greener parts of Texas, with one story houses, white picket fences; where everyone knew each other and kept their windows open for all the world to see.

I grew up and still live in a suburb an hour away from downtown Los Angeles. My house was on a cul de sac, and I was told by my protective parents to never exit the bend and venture outside the circular dead end I called home. Remember when kids used to make the most out of their limitations rather than whine more to their parents if they didn’t get what they wanted? I still had plenty to do in the enclosed space. Mostly, it was just riding bikes all day long until dusk hit. Other times, it was hide and seek with the neighbors. Looking back, I’m grateful for how quiet our part of town is. With the exception of the rare passing car that can be heard in a hill above, or a plane soaring in the clouds, it was otherwise peaceful to the point of being unreal.

The Tree of Life perfectly captures the feeling of a lazy Sunday afternoon, wandering the neighborhood streets looking for something to do. Everything from the melancholy, longing undercurrent that flows beneath the surface, to the look, feel, and atmosphere of the small O’Brien suburb, to the small interactions the boys make with each other, it all echoes a time when the world seemed to move more slowly than it actually did.

The other major component of the childhood sequence is, of course, Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien. One common complaint I’ve heard from a lot of people was that the adult Jack felt incredibly traumatized and regretful about his relationship with his father, despite the fact that Mr. O’Brien wasn’t “all that bad”. This statement is absolutely true, but it is not something to complain about. Mr. O’Brien was not a pedophile, he never threatened death to his children, he still loved them dearly, and his aggressive nature was reflective of the strictness of almost all ’50s father figures. He never did anything to agregious, but there were some flashes of abuse. Abuse that wasn’t fatal enough to seriously injure the children, but forceful enough to give these children a distinct image of their father. The image that their father possibly didn’t accept them, that he will only accept them if they’re “real men”.

The fact that Mr. O’Brien is not a terrible person is key. He is still a believable human being who understandably loves his children, and wishes them the best even if it means punishing them when they don’t appreciate his authority or the risks he made to raise them.

I’ve made this observation in my review of the film and I will repeat it once more: Sean Penn’s regret over how he treated his father parallels that of a man who loses his faith in God, another father-like figure. He searches both for meaning in how to set things right with dear old dad, and meaning on why the universe wouldn’t give him the second chance to do so. He wonders whether his dad even ever acted like a good dad at all, and more importantly, begins to ask why God has seemingly abandoned him.

I am not a religious person, but this is something I think anyone can relate with. If it was all about the religious aspect of the film, many non-religious folks–including myself, and especially atheists–wouldn’t connect with it. By presenting it in the context of a father-son dichotomy, it immediately becomes more identifiable. That isn’t to say that you can watch this film without noticing the religious undercurrents of the film, but anyone can relate to a time when you felt guilt over disobeying your father, begging to start it over, begging to start anything you may have regretted over.

Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien obviously represent two halves of a whole. Jessica Chastain’s first lines explain to the audience the two ways through life: The way of nature and the way of grace. Each parent embodies one of these ways of life. Mrs. O’Brien represents the way of grace: Always forgiving, always kind, unconditionally loving towards all things. Mr. O’Brien represents the way of nature: Disciplinary, strict, wants to please only himself, but still keeps the balance of things in check. As I stated before, it’s key to note that Mr. O’Brien wasn’t meant to be perceived as a callous individual. He still deeply cared about his children, because in a way, his children are reflective of himself. If nature wants only to please itself, what if nature’s children beared a striking similarity to their father?

The final piece of the puzzle is the ending, which has been single-handedly been able to turn off even some of the viewers who were getting into the movie. It’s abstract, artsy, but deeply poetic. Since I assume you’ve read the spoiler warning on the top, The Tree of Life ends with Sean Penn experiencing…something. He begins traversing a barren desert wasteland chasing a younger version of himself, only to be transported into a heavenly beach where all of the people he’d ever known and loved are standing. They all wait for him in silence, forgiveness, and empathy, like they’re welcoming him to their home after waiting hundreds of years.

The most obvious interpretation is that Sean Penn experiences some form of Heaven. As Richard Matheson theorized in his novel What Dreams May Come, Heaven is whatever your heart’s greatest desire is, and for Sean Penn, it is to be with all the people he loves, and simply say sorry.

However, it is just as easy to view the ending as a subconscious experience rather than a spiritual one. Sean Penn is standing in the elevator, but doesn’t have the energy to make it through the day. Something needs to give him an extra budge. So he begins to have an epiphany. He imagines going to the heavenly beach, and saying sorry to all the people he’s ever loved, including his father, discovering that while they may be physically gone, he can always find them in his heart.

When I discussed the film on the CinEffect Podcast with my cohost, Alex, I briefly mentioned the ambiguous flame imagery that the film constantly cuts to every now and then, and that I had a heart-breaking realization about what that ambiguous, colorful flame was. He asked what it was, and I refused answering because it is up to your own interpretation. Since I’m currently discussing my personal interpretation of the film’s events, I’ll spill the beans on what I thought.

The movie begins with the Big Bang, which looks, of course, like natural light. However, it keeps going back to the flames at many points in the film, while characters softly whisper their monologues to the colors. I started noticing a pattern in the film. We saw the beginning of Jack’s life and the entire universe. And though we were given an ending to Jack’s story, the Universe is just as much a character in The Tree of Life as the humans living inside of it. And it hit me. The film ends Jack’s life, and conversely, ends the Universe. That is what I found the flames to be. The remnants of the universe after its complete destruction. Where, even in death, there is still a spark, an afterglow, just lingering in the blackness.

One primary connection I noticed throughout the film was the theme of daddy issues and parental struggles in general. Young Jack just wanted to be loved by his father, Adult Jack wants to make amends with his father, Mrs. O’Brien is Young Jack’s only sanctuary of forgiveness, and Adult Jack wishes to tell his mother how much she truly meant to him. All of this is meant to represent all of mankind’s own parental issues. The two ways through life, and the two parents that embody them, represent the two sides of God. The loving side that created wonderful miracle such as life itself, and the strict God that allowed a family member to be run over by a tractor right outside the barn. Humanity has always searched for meaning in all of life, whether it be in the cosmos searching for new forms of life or by tracing back the origins of the planet, excavating old life forms that were never given a chance to experience the future. Why do we deserve to exist? Why do we keep on living? Why do we deserve to die? And is there a father figure above who truly loves us?

This encompassing theme brought me to this surprising conclusion: The Tree of Life is without a doubt a nostalgic ode to childhood, a haunting mood piece, a surrealist drama, and a meditative slow burn; but more importantly, it is a coming of age story. Not just in the sense of Young Jack O’Brien’s transition from childhood to adulthood, but also in Adult Jack’s transition from Earth to Heaven, mankind’s transition from life to death, and the planet Earth’s transition from Creation to Destruction.

Before I leave, I have one final observation that shook me to the core, when I thought about it.

The main crux of the film’s chain of events is the revelation that one of the O’Brien children has died. The news shakes Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, and the film goes forward in time to reveal Adult Jack still commemorating his brother’s death. He even admits in a phone call with his father that he still thinks of his death every day.

Now, here’s something odd that I’ve never really understood until now. While the death of one of the O’Brien boys is an important factor in the story, it is never revealed to you which one of the brothers actually died. Why is that?

Let’s go back to Sean Penn. He lives as an architect, working in a huge corporate building that menacingly looms over him, its metal bars looking almost like a cage…or a prison.

We see him call his father, but we never get to hear the other end of the line. And soon after that, he just quickly, without warning, descends into his own memories through flashbacks. Why? Why can’t we hear the other end of the line when Jack is calling Mr. O’Brien? What was it, after years of monotonous grief and anguish, on a regular day that isn’t too different from any other, that triggered his flashbacks? Why does the film keep constantly cutting back to the ambiguous flames?

I’m not going to say that this interpretation is “correct” per se, but the pieces are there. It’s never revealed which of the brothers kicked the bucket, you never hear the other end on the phone during Jack and Dad’s conversations, and the flames always butt in the way of the flow, almost as if it’s trying to remind you of something.

Now, let me ask you this: How do we know that what Jack is experiencing in the present day is really the present day? And if we’re going with the assumption that the flames represent the death of the universe, why does the film keep cutting to them at random moments? How do we know that the world, as we see it, is even tangible, or alive, for that matter? How do we know if Sean Penn’s flashbacks are actually flashbacks, or something else? And if Richard Matheson is correct, and Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory are really just a state of mind, how do we know if what we call reality is just a tiny spark in the blackness that is our subconscious?

And the final question: We know for a fact that one of the O’Brien kids died, but how do we know for sure that it wasn’t Jack that took the blow?

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