The Tree of Life – a film by Terrence Malick

This week, I was finally able to view the film “The Tree of Life,” directed by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. As expected, I was deeply moved by the powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual experience of this masterful rendering of the experience of life. There is much of value to be gleaned from viewing this intensely provocative and enormously absorbing film which takes on the whole universe from its spectacular beginnings to the minute by minute unraveling of life in the modern world. We are led through a kaleidoscopic journey of a Texas family in 1950’s Texas, which unravels through tragedy, leaving many unanswered questions and a haunted Sean Penn as the grownup version of the young boy who lost his brother as a young man and who lost his way as a grown man.

Even though I hadn’t slept the whole night, I stayed up for another two hours and twenty minutes to take advantage of the opportunity to view the film and I was not disappointed. I spent much of the next day exhausted from both lack of sleep and from the emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride created by Malick’s masterwork. The film is not an easy experience to endure. Malick challenges the viewer to delve deeply and focus intently on some disturbingly emotional vignettes that punctuate a surreal mental landscape of memories from a childhood which began in the 1950’s. The film evokes the period vividly for anyone who remembers those years, and as a child of the 1950’s myself, much of the film resonated uncannily at times with my own experiences.

This is a photo of my siblings and me out in front of our home in 1956.

Malick has composed a patchwork symphony of pivotal intimate moments of childhood experiences, and woven his richly-textured cloth into a complex and, at times, disparate pattern that frequently struck at the very core of my being. I found myself oddly vacillating between exceptionally emotional highs and lows as I moved through my own emotional and psychological panorama, which was provoked by the extraordinary force of Malick’s vision. Viewing the film put me in a state of discomfort so often that by the end of the film I felt shell-shocked–unprepared as I was for the barrage of unrestrained emotional upheaval.

One of the most profound aspects of the film for me resulted from the inclusion of a phenomenally vivid and lavish reconstruction of the creation of the universe and the ensuing development of stars, galaxies, and our familiar solar system, culminating in the evolution of life on earth and the dawn of consciousness itself through the evolution of humanity.

Malick seems to suggest to us that our subjective experience of the world is not simply a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, and that supporting it all is an underlying non-physical substrate–that beyond the physical universe there exists a transcendent reality of which we are subjectively aware, but sadly lacking in understanding fully how these other layers of existence gave form and substance to the physical universe in the first place.

While each of the characters in the film are compelling in their own way, none is more compelling for me than the mother of the story played by Jessica Chastain. Throughout the film, I am constantly drawn in by her extraordinarily keen sensitivity and powerful connection to her children. In the opening scene, her portrayal of the mother struck by the news contained in a telegram of the loss of her child grabbed a hold of me so intently, that I could not take my eyes off her whenever she appeared.

It was “Mrs. Obrien,” who gave voice to the main theme of the story, which was that we must choose either the way of nature or the way of grace, and she articulates the difference in the two approaches by characterizing the way of grace as one which “doesn’t try to please itself,” and the way of nature as one which “only wants to please itself…to have its own way.” Throughout the film, Malick places these two opposites up against each other in numerous ways, and the tension it creates presents the viewer with some of the film’s most potent and emotional moments.

It seems very likely that there will be more discussion of this film finding its way into some of my future posts.

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9 comments

    • jjhiii24

      Admittedly, Malick’s films do seem to run a bit toward the unusual, and I think that genius often manifests in results that are “outside the box.”

      After having a look at “Toast,” which is a bit of an oddball film also, I recommend you and your Dad watch the “Tree” movie together.

      Afterwards you can toast to being out of your respective trees.

      Regards….John H.

  1. Anne Donnelly

    A good friend of mine said this movie was terrible and she almost left it! So funny how different we all are. I will give it a chance, if I get the chance.

  2. jjhiii24

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my review of this amazing film.

    It’s always a good idea to at least listen to how other people feel about their OWN experiences, but when it comes to deciding which voice we FOLLOW regarding which experience WE pursue, it’s probably best to come to a conclusion based on a variety of sources. Even someone whose judgment we normally hold to be sound can be mistaken. My review is based on my own experience and I support my evaluation of the film’s merits with enthusiasm, but you may not find the film as intriguing as I did for any number of reasons.

    The film is challenging to watch, not only for it’s emotional content, but also for Malick’s directorial choices which include scenes that are not immediately apparent in their relevance to the main story. I was prepared for both of these elements having read a fair amount about the film before seeing it, and in my opinion, the film is extraordinary on a number of levels. Being required to focus on abstract elements and to think about what is happening, rather than simply being entertained makes a film MORE appealing to ME, but frequently this is not the case with your average moviegoer. I love many of the films of Stanley Kubrick, who made 2001: A Space Odyssey, but those films require more of the audience than just passive attendance to be appreciated.

    This film contains numerous moments that felt familiar to me as I reflected on my own experiences as a young boy growing up in the late 1950’s, who lost his brother, had a very strict father, and a mother who was always trying to mitigate the father’s strict discipline and emotional distance with his sons. As a grown man, I am not as lost as Sean Penn’s character, but I understand his feelings well, and feel a kinship with his desire for catharsis regarding the missing brother of his youth.

    I’d be very glad to know your response to the film when you see it……John H.

    • Anne

      OK so my husband and I watched the film. We did a good amount of nervous giggling. This is what we do when something seems weird or as you say outside the box. It was not a typical movie, which is good. It held my interest to the very end which is another good thing. It did not move me as it did you. I felt the familiar stirrings of the strict father and the peacemaking mother. The brother killed in the war did not remind me of my lost brother, but he was lost before i was born, I liked it basically because it was slow sort of peaceful and gave me time to appreciate it instead of slamming me with action or whatever. I will think more about it and maybe have more to say.

      • jjhiii24

        I’m glad you took the time to see the film and grateful for your return visit to comment further. What you have said already is illuminating.

        It should not be surprising that the film affected you in a different way, since what we both brought with us to the film in the way of life experience is quite different in important ways. Even with some similarities in our upbringing, the loss I experienced was profound and, in important ways, it still haunts me.

        The film begins with a punch in the stomach from my point of view, and the voice of the young boy periodically throughout the film, in one instance talking to his brother as if he might hear him, asking him, “Where did you go?” was, for me, a flashback to my own inner conversation at the same age.

        Having endured an accumulated total of almost three years with my only son in a combat zone, fearing nearly every waking moment that I might have the experience depicted in the opening of the film, struck me with such power that I could barely breathe. Struggling as I have with the memory of experiences with my own father, and of my own memories as a father to my son, brought to bear a whole range of emotions and feelings that I found so gripping, even upon reflection, I can scarcely articulate the feelings evoked by the film.

        In particular, the context Malick conjured for the background of the story, putting it in perspective of a lifetime for Sean Penn’s character and, for all of us, in the perspective of both our personal memory and our place in the wider cosmic perspective of the history of the universe, resonated so clearly with the subject of my research and writing these many years, that I was compelled to include the review here.

        I look forward to your further reflections on the film and encourage you to discuss the film with others and to read other reviews for perspectives other than mine.

  3. patricemj

    Thanks for reviewing this evocative film. I’ve seen it twice and felt such deep resonance with the plaintive voice of the narrator. Somehow that voice must given me the courage to free fall through the atmosphere of my own lamentations. Like you, I felt somewhat spent upon exitting the theatre, but found the images sticking with me for quite some time. If you feel inclined there is a post on my own blog I’ve titled, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” that might be something you would like to read. It is a sort of stream of consciousness sort of piece I wrote one day while thinking of the people I miss, my brother in particular. In an odd way, I feel this film gave me permission to write it.

    I’m excited to have stumbled upon your blog devoted to the inner life of man.

    • jjhiii24

      Patrice,

      Your kindness in giving attention to my blog post is much appreciated. The film continues to haunt me in its profound implications, which seem to be still clanging in my mind like a bell with a broken clapper. Seeing the film punctured my still unresolved bubble of memories from my own childhood, but somehow made me feel better about how I have come through it all. Losing my brother as a child myself was never properly addressed at that time, and I was surprised by how I could still feel the sting.

      I did stop by your blog and read through “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and agree that the film clearly had a similar effect on us both. In reviewing several of your most recent postings, I noted your courage in making several of them quite lengthy. I admire your tenacity in writing at length, but wonder if there are many readers who are tenacious enough to stick with you through to the end of them.

      I have wanted to formalize my writings about our inner human life for years now, and your recognition of my efforts is a great encouragement for me.

      Looking forward to our continued dialog on our respective subjects.

      Regards….John H.

  4. patricemj

    Thanks so much for visiting John! I look forward to continued dialogue with you as well. Regarding the lengths of my posts, well, I am aware that’s a problem for a blogger. But honestly, I really want to write for myself and those who get what I’m talking about. If you see what I mean, I myself am tenacious, and if my blog turns away those looking for something a little easier than so be it. I am so happy to be an encouragement to you tonight. Best.

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