Photo: ‘Tree of Life’
Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ is not your average family film. It’s filled with abstract imagery such as scenes of the Earth’s formation and dinosaurs living and breathing in the grassy areas as a reminder to the viewer that dinosaurs walked the earth 65 million years ago. Despite the abstract introduction to the film, the story primarily focuses on the O’Brien Family of five members: Mr. O’Brien (played by Brad Pitt), Mrs. O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain), and their three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. Though the film puts the eldest son, Jack, in focus as he struggles with his parent’s different views of their wisdom.
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The movie features the universes’ formation which compares to the O’Brien family in any approach. Around the first twenty minutes of the film, there are scenes involving the formation of cells being transformed into fully developed animals. Moments later, we are presented with seeing the O’Brien parents having their children for the first time as toddlers, and especially seeing one of their sons named Jack (played by Hunter McCracken) turning into a full-grown adult. It is obvious that the animal heavily represents the son’s transformation from a child into a grown-up.
This experimental device of storytelling would most likely baffle the average filmgoer, but keen film fanatics who are familiar with Mr. Malick’s methods of filmmaking, would find it fascinating. There is another scene involving the lava and waves of water clashing together which symbolizes the story’s topic of nature against grace. A film watcher with critical thinking skills can interpret that the volcanic emission can represent the father’s worship of nature and the water can symbolize the mother’s belief in grace. When the two mash together, it causes strife. Both ideologies are opposites of each other and the critical thinker watching the film can differentiate between the two. The movie does a good job of using symbolic devices to foreshadow the characters’ growth and represent the dissimilarity of nature and grace.
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The minimalistic conversations as well as the heavy use of narration do a good job explaining each one of the characters’ personalities. There is a scene that features Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) narrates to her audience her beliefs in grace. During that moment, a child version of her is presented as well as a montage of Mrs. O’Brien’s interaction with farmed cows and beautiful garden settings. She tells us that “there are two ways through life: The way of nature and the way of grace. You must choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself…accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked… accepts insults and injuries. Nature 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 when love is smiling through all things.”
‘Tree of Life’
The scene works well since she approaches the animals and plants gracefully. It gives a heavy representation to the viewers that she is the avatar of grace and is fully aware that it has its disadvantages, but Mrs. O’Brien will never give in to nature’s ideologies of life due to the lack of happiness. It also demonstrates that she remains a consistent character throughout. When a character is not narrating, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) would be shown driving his family through their beautiful suburban neighborhood and is heard telling his sons that “the world lives by trickery. If you want to succeed, you can’t be good.” The father is an obvious representation of nature and how competitive the world can be. He informs his sons that to survive in the cynical and competitive world, one cannot be gentle.
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Otherwise, their family would succumb to failures in life. Teaching their sons to become cynics is not necessarily a bad thing. I was even reminded of how my father taught me to never be a soft person. Both my dad and Mr. O’Brien wanted what they thought was best for their children. The narration of Mrs. O’Brien’s character works well with the naturalistic montage by emphasizing her representation of grace while we understand Mr. O’Brien’s as a skeptic figure of nature toward the world.
Terrence Malick’s choice of classical music gives the right tone to enhance the emotional scenes of the story. In the first twenty minutes of the film, we are shown the transformation stages of the cosmos. While the universe is forming, a classical song Lacrimosa (composed by Zbigniew Preisner) is heard. Terrence Malick not only wants the audience to look at amazing creation scenes, but the music also makes them feel how precious it can be to witness the inception of earth.
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Without classical music, it would only make the pretty scenes more pointless or dull. In another scene, Les Barricades (composed by Francois Couperin) is played while the mother plays with her children inside and outside their home since the father is out on a business trip. We feel joy when we see Mrs. O’Brien play with her children while the piano-driven track is heard. The viewer might interpret it as a beautiful memory that Mr. Malick had when he was a child. Another possibility of the use of music is to show how even more charming Mrs. O’Brien can be when the stern father is not around. It certainly reminded me of how gentle my mother was when I was growing up with a serious father. The director’s choice of including classical music works with the story to make the formation scenes more important since we are witnessing our universe changing before our eyes and reminding how graceful our mothers can be.
The director took risks by making an ordinary story into an extraordinary one. The use of the cosmos’ formation scenes seemed suitable for representing the O’Brien family since we are examining from their inception to their present days. Keeping the dialogue minimalistic and having constant narration can make the viewers identify the main character’s thoughts and feelings since most of them are reaching out to God or hearing themselves think like everyday human beings.
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The music gives a divine tone and can help trigger a memory or make beautiful scenes even prettier. Accepting the film for its creative choices can help avant-garde film fanatics to understand and or interpret the big picture that Mr. Malick is trying to demonstrate. The movie can either represent a memory or the fact that we keep evolving as the years go by. It is all up to the viewer. When watching this movie, keep an open mind and surrender to the abstract imagery.
By Marco Castaneda
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