“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. 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. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” -Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life”)
I have seen “The Tree of Life” twice and with those two viewings, I would have to say the film has cracked my top 10 best of all time list (if you care about lists). To be charged with the task of finding a movie that evokes more wonder and awe with a hopeful perspective of life, one would be hard pressed outside of this experience.
The story is fairly simple. A family lives in Waco, TX in the 1950s. The father (Mr. O’Brien portrayed by Brad Pitt) is a strict disciplinarian who teaches his boys (among other things) how to shut screen doors properly. The mother (Mrs. O’Brien played by Jessica Chastain) is gentle, understanding and hopeful. They raise three boys together in their typical house with a huge lawn and a river nearby. A place for a mesmerizing childhood filled with adventure, the pains of growing up, and a sense of innocence.
One of their boys tragically dies when he is 19. This sends the family to a whirlwind of voiceover prayers to God wondering why this event happened. The questions are tough and unsentimental. The family, including the oldest boy Jack (played in adult years by Sean Penn), struggles to keep perspective on hope and grace while living in a world where the news is filled with dread.
Famously, director Terrence Malick, with one of Mrs. O’Brien’s prayers mentioning the theodicy issue and rhetorically asking how her child came to her, brings us back to the big bang and cosmic evolution. The formation of Earth is experienced as well as microscopic evolution giving way to animals in the oceans and finally, dinosaurs make an appearance. Malick doesn’t quite pull a Michael Bay when an asteroid hits the Earth and by implication, kills the dinosaurs.
All of this to say, our lives and experiences have an extraordinary amount of meaning and can be infused with hope. Existence itself is a miracle. Malick seems to suggest that we can transcend “nature” and embrace a “grace-filled” perspective only with help. Help with seeing. Help with believing. “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive. ” (Mrs. O’Brien)
(SPOILER) Mr. O’Brien even has a period of repentance from his strict disciplinarian ways at the end of the film and confesses the hardship he brought on his eldest son. “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.”
(SPOILER) The ending of Malick’s picture, and I mean the very last shot, has probably caused some puzzlement. It is a shot of a giant bridge and certainly is ambiguous. The succession of shots indicates that it is Jack as an older man (Penn) looking at this bridge. To me, the notion of a bridge represents a crossing over and perhaps in this metaphor, a “bridge” if you will to a greater understanding of the events his family suffered. Now, the film does not show him walking across the bridge so whether or not he chooses to come to an understanding or chooses another way is the subject of interpretation.
Extremely rare it is to find an epic, art house picture that embraces the seemingly small lives of a family in Texas juxtaposed with a macro-universe view of the birth and death of the universe. An epilogue finds the family experiencing an afterlife. Reviewer Roger Ebert writes: “And it all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space.” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-tree-of-life-2011)