“There are two paths in this world; the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll take.” This is the bare bones theme of Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated Tree of Life, the film which not only explores these two paths, but is also a blend of coming-of-age drama, experimental film, and high-minded epic. The film’s characters are equipped with a sense of religious certainty, which results in intense moral musings. They all speak directly to God in whispers full of hope, grief and fear.
Malick is a notoriously private person who rarely grants interviews, and thus all thoughts about whether or not his own beliefs are present will be presumptions. The presence of a creation montage lends a purely scientific aspect to the film. The Big Bang happens, dinosaurs roam, meteors strike the earth, ocean waves crash, and time moves forward. Humans arrive, bringing with them questions of good and evil, right and wrong, heaven and hell. This sequence will likely be hailed as wondrous and criticized for being overly indulgent. This writer sides with the former crowd. While some will argue that the sequence is pointless, there are moments that foreshadow the greater themes and plot of the film. The music, special effects, cinematography and editing are all beautiful, cohesive and seamless.
After this grand setup, the audience is presented with the story of a family in 1950s Texas. The first child is born, his parents look at him with wonder and love. A gorgeous montage shows the child’s infancy, toddlerhood, the birth of the second child, the budding jealousy between the baby siblings, and the birth of the third son. The oldest son, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult) is the focus of the film’s moral struggle. He is a basically good kid who sees the daily struggle between his mother (the way of grace) and father (the way of nature). The mother (Jessica Chastain) is unfailingly kind and loving with her children, while the father (Brad Pitt) is often harsh and critical of his children. Jack wants to go the way of grace, but fears that he will ultimately fall prey to his natural inclinations. He sees the goodness and kindness of his younger brother, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), almost as a challenge and a threat. Jack clearly loves R.L., vigorously defending him when their father physically attacks him. However, he finds himself occasionally hurting or frightening him without explanation. After one of these incidents, Jack whispers to God that he always fails to do the things he wants to and finds himself doing things he hates.
Jack strives to be like R.L., and especially like his mother, but constantly finds himself falling prey to his darker side. When talking to his father in the midst of a moment of repentance for his overly strict treatment of the boys, Jack tells him defeatedly: “I’m more like you than her.” The relationship between Jack and his father is foreshadowed in an early “nature vs. grace” moment. During the creation segment, a small dinosaur is seen lying in a stream. Others of his species flee in the background and a velociraptor approaches from behind. It creeps up on the small creature and pounces, pinning the little one’s head against a rock. He holds it for a moment before lifting his leg slightly. As the smaller one lifts its head, the raptor stomps it viciously back down. After a few more moments, the raptor dashes away, leaving his prey dazed but alive.
In the glimpses the audience sees of Jack as an adult, he appears successful but still unsettled. His relationship with his father appears in tact but strained. The only interaction between the two is a phone call in which the father is unheard. In all honesty, Penn has little to do. He is able to quickly convey an unspoken pain and mental turmoil, which is perhaps his greatest contribution to the film. The bulk of the time is given to McCracken, who turns in a remarkable natural and electric performance. He and the other boys in the film (Eppler as well as Tye Sheridan as the youngest brother) were all cast in and around the areas of Texas where the film was shot. One of the basic criteria in the casting call was that they be “real boys,” meaning Malick was not interested in cutesy child actors. The three are blissfully unaffected performers. Malick has a history of using children as narrators and central characters, though this is the first time it’s been a boy. His thick west Texas accent rolls out Malick’s heavy words without pretension or self-consciousness, making them all the more beautiful.
If reading this has not much clarified what Tree of Life holds in store, then it’s just as well. It isn’t a movie that can be easily described, it must be experienced. This film, like all of Malick’s, is not for everyone. There are many who will look around as meteors hit the earth and cellular organisms develop onscreen, wondering where Pitt and Penn are. For those who are willing, the journey from the beginning of time is challenging, thrilling and wondrous.
- Stephanie Huettner