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Analysing The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

The first time I thought of writing this review I was floating in a pool of welcomingly cold water after taking a long run. I was staring at a cloudy sky, it was going to start raining very soon. When you’re floating you feel a strange kind of lightness, you’re barely making any physical effort, and when your ears submerge it’s like you’re isolated from everything around you: all you can hear is the guttural sound of your breathing and blood, pumping thickly through your heart. You become awkwardly aware of your own body, and how its physicality seems to contradict the infinitude of your consciousness. If you stay long enough, it can be both unsettling and soothing. Just like The Tree of Life.
The film starts with a excerpt of the Book of Job. In fact, there are many more biblical references that could be mentioned, if only I had the knowledge to spot them all. Not being acquainted with the piece, I did the necessary research, which shed some light on the matter and made the second viewing even more enthralling. It also revealed just how cultured Malick must be, and thus deepened my respect and admiration for his work – this movie isn’t just sheer good taste, there’s a depth to it that relies on knowledge, humbleness, and sensitivity. But back to the tale: Job was a righteous man who saw everything being taken from him.  Baffled and vexed with such injustice, he turns to God, asking how could He allow, even dictate, such evil to be done upon him, a blameless and upright man. To which He replies: where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? […] While the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy? Job 38:4-7.
Just like Job, Malick’s characters will struggle to find reason in the tragedy that hit them: we learn that R.L., the O’Brien’s middle child, died at 19, and witness his devastated mother asking God did You know, and who are we to You. Just like God did with Job, Malick takes us on a masterful ride that begins with the birth of the cosmos, forcing us to see the bigger picture, to put the loss in perspective – and Zbigniew Preisner‘s Lacrimosa was no innocent choice as background music, for it goes something like this:

That day of tears and mourning,
when from the ashes shall arise
all humanity to be judged.
Spare us by your mercy, Lord,
gentle Lord Jesus,
grant them eternal rest. Amen.

Through explosive stars and clashing galaxies we are given the key to Job’s tale: God’s reply evidences man’s inability to fully comprehend His plans; the universe He created is vast, much larger in both space and time than humanity’s existence. In the religious tale, one may think God is outraged by Job’s insubordination, by his foolishness in questioning Him, and even more for demanding an answer, and because of it God feels the need to remind us His superiority. There are various interpretations though, just like there are many reactions to The Tree of Lifeas we behold the grandeur of Malick’s cosmic images, some may find confort in feeling they’re a part of something so magnificent, while others will recognise the desolate vacuum of infinity and weep. But no matter from what point of view we stand, either He or a lucky accident created dashing sunrises, colourful molecules, peaceful oceans and dancing jellyfish, just like He or It created fiery volcanos, deathly gases, crushing waterfalls and frightening thunder. From the very beginning there were these two opposite forces, that rather than being labelled as good and evil, act as a necessary counter-weight for one another, thus completing each other.

That’s the way to look at what the nuns taught Mrs. O’Brien: these two forces are the way of grace, and the way of nature: You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. 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. They will be embodied respectively by Mrs. and Mr. O’Brien: she is tender, pure and caring, but like Jack notes, let’s him walk all over her; he is demanding, agressive and resentful, but nevertheless a loving husband and father. Neither mother is the heroine, nor father the villain. When R.L. dies they both mourn, though he griefs more for her than for himself, because she was righteous, the best woman in the whole town – just like Job. And when Mr. O’Brien realizes what he has done to his family, he cries, regrets, and seeks forgiveness in his eldest, Jack – the one that has perhaps suffered the most. 
Back to the present, a middle aged Jack wakes up in an über modernist house, its cold light is austere, and its minimalist design depraved of decor, emotionless – a reflection of himself. He lights a candle, a symbol of hope and warmth that will later reappear, and remembers: he sees the child he was, how from early on he was the opposite of his kind brother. Surrounded by equally smashing and cold buildings, Jack wonders how he lost his way. To figure it out he goes back to the moment he was born – that aesthetically prodigious and clever scene of the bedroom filled with water. We’ll tag along with Jack on his journey through childhood. For most of the time, the camera is at Jack’s height and chasing him everywhere, incessantly, thus mastering the illusion of seeing the world through his eyes. But sometimes it is staring from above, as if we’re observing the world through God’s eyes. 
Then, one of the most interesting details: in the family’s dining room, one of the chairs moves by itself. A supernatural happening that remains unexplained, perhaps symbolising the mysteries of the universe, all the things that are beyond the boundaries of our limited knowledge. Suggestive details like this one occur throughout the film. One of the most evocative is when Mrs. O’Brien covers R.L. with a white curtain, like one would do to a dead man. As Jack grows, his relationship with his father begins to change. He is constantly diminished by Mr. O’Brien, to the point he is afraid to put more food in his own plate. Affection doesn’t come easy between them, but it is clear for us that Mr. O’Brien loves him; just not for Jack. So the child believes to be evil, and begs that his mother makes him a good person – he tries to follow grace.
Growing up, he is influenced both by his mother and father, as we all are: we see scenes of pure joy, bathed in magical sunlight, shared with his loving mother; and we see moments of pain, motivated by their father’s harsh words and temperament (even a somewhat eerie segment of Mr. O’Brien playing the organ). Grace is presented as liberation, nature as oppression. He will struggle with both: Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. When one of the neighbour’s kid drowns in the public pool, something changes in Jack. He starts noticing the tragedies, pushing boundaries. He vandalizes, tortures frogs, plays dangerous games with his brother. He apologizes, then does it again. Until the most intense moment comes, when his father is under a car, vulnerable. Before, he asked God to kill him, could that be Him granting Jack the opportunity? I may be looking to much into this, but when they kill the frog, and one of the kids shouts something like It’s just an experience! If they can do it, so can we, could that be a holocaust reference? Or perhaps something more general, like how we abuse nature and animals for own profit, just because we can. I may be going a bit insane here, I know.
Anyway, it appears Jack has succumbed to nature, and he knows it. He turns to his father and whispers I’m as bad as you are. I’ve stated why I think Mr. O’Brien is no villain – we must look at post-World War II families in the US, the southern upbringing – though Jack seems to think otherwise. Even in the present, when thinking about how his brother’s death affected his parents, he wonders how did she got through it, not his father. Mr. O’Brien is tough on his children because he wants them to have a better life than the one he had. He chose the wrong way to do it, but his intentions were pure.

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Of course that doesn’t justify his actions, but his redemption in the end blurs the line between right and wrong, and gets closer to what makes us human:  I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man. Humans are foolish. Mr. O’Brien was foolish. Job was foolish. We fail, repeatedly. We experience with frogs, we scare our brothers. But we’re also good. And when Jack is standing on an ascending elevator, the machine going beep beep beep like a beating heart, he walks through a desert and finally reaches a sandy beach that may very well be heaven, and he realizes that the good things outweigh the bad. He comes down and smiles, for he gets it now. He’s finally alright. 

This is The Tree of Life. I’m not sure what it is trying to say, only that it seems to use Job’s tale to say it. Though to many it represented two incredibly dull hours, to others, just like me, the first viewing is quite the cinematic experience: it will spark your senses, stir emotions, and if you’re patient, leave you in wonder. The second time around, it will make you think harder, be curious and eager to unveil every detail. 
It is sincere, bold, and beautiful. It speaks through images and sounds (one can’t forget Desplat’s work) rather than words, though when it uses them, they’re used wisely. Its style and narrative are as organic as the actor’s performances, all of them. I think, for once, not only the kids were not annoying, they were terrific. It emphasises gorgeous details of everyday life, the beauty that surrounds us, how precious life is. Moreover, every frame as a meaning, the one you give to it. We could spend hours analysing every single one of them. So I apologize if what I wrote seems confusing, and for being perhaps too long. But one thing is certain: when dealing with such primal matters, with the very mystery of life, one can easily get lost — but somehow The Tree of Life manages to do just fine. 
I leave you with the priest’s powerful sermon, which was in fact based on a real one:

Job imagined he might build his nest on high – that the integrity of his behaviour would protect him against misfortune. And his friends thought, mistakenly, that the Lord could only have punished him because secretly he’d done something wrong. But, no, misfortune befalls the good as well. We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, even if I’m not happy, I’m going to make sure they are. 

We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass, and like a tree are rooted up. Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe? Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away? We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forth. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that. Is the body of the wise man, or the just, exempt from any pain? From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight its beauty, from the weakness that might destroy its health? 

Do you trust in God? Job, too, was close to the Lord. Are your friends and children your security? There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you. No one knows when sorrow might visit his house, any more than Job did. The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?

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