Thursday, July 14, 2011

"The Tree Of Life": A Multi-Part Exploration: Part One

Sean Penn as Jack in his older years, contemplating in Terrence Malick's drama "The Tree Of Life".
 Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                        
day, July 14, 2011

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen "The Tree Of Life" it is probably not a good idea to read any further.

PART ONE                                                             Cover | Intro | Part Two | Three

The OLDEST SON Jack, Mr. O'Brien, Mrs. O'Brien and the middle son, R.L.

Hunter McCracken as young Jack in Terrence Malick's drama "The Tree Of Life".  Fox Searchlight

Jack loves his father Mr. O'Brien but doesn't like him.  He notes his father's contradictions.  Jack flirts with murder.  The relationship between Jack and Mr. O'Brien is somewhat tense.  "You'd like to kill me," Jack says to his dad, who demands to be called "father".  Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, has a mild resentment towards his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler).  Those seeds of resentment are sown early on, as a baby as the toddler Jack threatens to throw wooden toy animals at the new born R.L.  "No!", Mrs. O'Brien warns Jack.  Jack has a lot of pent-up anger within him as a young boy, the anger that his father Mr. O'Brien occasionally unleashes at the dinner table. 

R.L. is the middle child.  He bears a strong resemblance to his father (Brad Pitt).  Both are aspiring musicians.  R.L. plays guitar.  Jack watches Mr. O'Brien play the church organ.  He's not necessarily pleased.  Jack manipulates the vinyl record playing classical music.  Mr. O'Brien loves classical music.

Jack circles the family house when R.L. is playing the guitar and Mr. O'Brien is at the piano smiling at R.L.  Jack has a scowl on his face.  These two, R.L. and Mr. O'Brien, are close in their relationship -- closer, at least, than Jack and Mr. O'Brien are.  Although Mr. O'Brien gets rough with R.L. there are warm embraces between the two.  By contrast, the embraces between Jack and Mr. O'Brien are fraught with tension.  During one embrace initiated by Jack, Mr. O'Brien looks mildly shocked, as if he doesn't know what to do or is uncomfortable in the moment.

After a church service Mr. O'Brien embraces R.L., who is happily nestled under his father's wing.  Jack, on the other hand, strays away, angered, resentful and distant.

R.L. is apparently the favorite son of Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) as well.  When she is asked by R.L. (or Jack), "who do you love the most?", she replies, "I love you all three the same," as her hands glide back and forth on R.L.'s chest and stomach.  Seems as if she favors R.L.

"Tell us a story from before we can remember," R.L. says.

Earlier in the film, we hear the voice of the older Jack asking, "how did she bear it?"  Is this an allusion to the idea that R.L. was her favorite son in addition to the already-obvious knowledge that Jack's question is an allusion to the death of her child at such a young age?

When we find out early on that the O'Briens have lost one of their children (and it turns out to be R.L.), a female voice is heard saying to Mrs. O'Brien: "You've still got the other two."  This is hardly comfort to Mrs. O'Brien, who is obviously (and understandably) visibly upset.

Jack is on the outside looking in when it comes to where he fits in to the O'Brien family.  Jack constantly defies his mother and shouts at his father: "He only loves ME!", he says, possibly referring to God.  Little is said about the third (and youngest son) however.

Jack is angered by his father.  He takes the acts of aggression he's learned from his father but suppressed because of him.  Jack tells his mother, Mrs. O'Brien, that "I'm more like him." 

In my review of "The Tree Of Life" I had originally opined that Mr. O'Brien is a strict disciplinarian, then had second thoughts after an explanation in a review of the film I had read.  Since then however, and with subsequent viewings it is ever more clear that Mr. O'Brien is indeed a strict disciplinarian.  Mr. O'Brien says, "I know I was tough on you, and I'm not proud of that." 

Mr. O'Brien concedes that he is trying to make Jack strong, but despite his love for Jack he makes things hard for him.  (One hurts the ones they love.)  Earlier in the film, Jack asks God, "why is he tough on us, our father?"  This question could just be an illustration of "nature" that is a character in the film.

There are things Mr. O'Brien does at the dinner table, in the garden, in the kitchen to his kids and his wife -- that are violent and/or harsh. 

Mr. O'Brien may love but he exhibits a profound lack of love.

R.L. (Laramie Eppler), the middle son in "The Tree Of Life".  R.L. is a musician and the favorite son of The O'Briens. 
Fox Searchlight

Jack tampers with three elements of "grace" -- or at least those things that represent grace in their own carefree purpose or sense of immutability -- innocence, sexuality, comfort/safety.


First, Jack attaches a frog to a firework skyrocket and ignites it.  Shots of frogs, salamanders and lizards have been shown before this happens.  We see the shots of these amphibians in books, on blades of grass and in bathtubs. 


Second, Jack, an adolescent, has sexual tension around his mother.  He watches Mrs. O'Brien as she walks around the house in a see-through white slip dress.  There's a close-up of a woman that looks like an older version of the girl that young Jack likes -- in the school scene where he looks at her and then looks away when she looks at him.  After Jack surveys the woman in the distance he breaks into her house in the neighborhood, steals her night slip and floats it down a river. 


Third, Jack fires an air gun when R.L. has his finger on the barrel.  An uncomfortable response of course, from R.L.

Each of these three actions are violations of grace, all brought on by "nature" impulses wrestling within young Jack -- or at least the nature of curiosity in a child or in anyone else.  Jack also throws stones at an empty house, smashing the glass.  I thought about "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones", and while young Jack is clearly outside that house as a pre-teen, the older edition of him is moored in his thoughts, a place where glass, trees and water converge.

"The Tree Of Life" is a pitched battle, as it were, between nature and grace.  That is made clear on more than one occasion.  Mr. Malick's Mr. O'Brien and Mrs. O'Brien are like a fully-clothed 1950s version of Adam And Eve.

As in "The Thin Red Line", there is a face in the ground, or more specifically, a body buried underground.  As we see the face, it appears to be R.L.  His eye blinks.  He's alive.  When we hear Jack whisper, "was he bad?", he could be referring either to a boy that has drowned in the film moments before this point, or, to R.L.  Jack questions the sudden death of the boy, and although R.L. doesn't pass away until he's 19, the question could well be asked in hindsight through Jack's youthful voice, but as recollected by Sean Penn's character looking back.  Does that make sense?

Mr. Malick loves centering his characters in the frame of his films, either at a distance or close-up.  We see the completeness of their existence with their surroundings and the space they occupy.  In "The Tree Of Life" and in other work, Mr. Malick frames his characters and the atmosphere around them and their connectivity to it.  For the director these entities are inseparable yet distinct.  Nature means something.  Life means something.  Experience means everything.  There's a very sensual, richly-detailed depiction of the interaction between and among each of these elements.

Click here for part two

                                                                                Cover | Intro | Part Two | Three

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