“Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity…A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives the span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.”
The Tree of Life, with its astounding imagery of the inception and closure of the Earth burning up the screen, reminded me of a discussion on infinity from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. If our lives are indeed so insignificant in the timeline of the universe, then how can one human life be of any meaning?
This ambitious film approaches these questions through the small-town story of Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn) and his complicated relationship with his family. Though set in an unfamiliar Texas town in the 1950s, a setting reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s own upbringing, the images of Jack’s life as a child: kicking the can in the yard before dinner, breaking windows to look cool, jealous glances at siblings, are all unmistakably archetypal and represent Jack’s gradual fall from innocence. As in his earlier film, Days of Heaven, Malick seems to suggest a child’s personal growth stems from the family and nature surrounding them. As the eldest child, Jack’s life starts out simple and singular, a baby observing the beauty of nature. But, as Jack grows, the family grows in number and Jack begins to act out just as his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) begin a bitter struggle over how to raise their children. The O’Brien family may be a fractured one, at times a step away from shattering, but it is a family, like so many in America, that somehow miraculously sticks together. The family’s love is evident in later scenes, as Jack’s childhood comes to a close. We watch the family slowly pulling away from their childhood home, piled into their 50s station wagon, together, happy, riding away into the future.
But the most unique part of the film comes from the way it is told. Less of a focused plot and more of a stream of consciousness played out in whispered monologues set over montages, we see Jack’s identity unfold in front of us in a way more intimate than most modern films come close to offering. Each beautiful image is crafted to bring out emotion, and each narration gives us a view into the character’s soul. Malick’s unique film style, pioneered in his earlier movies Badlands and Days of Heaven, strives to use strong images, not dialogue, to move the story forward. In that way, it will be off-putting to general audiences who refuse to be patient. Watching the film is akin to staring at a painting: there are infinite interpretations and the artist isn’t there to steer you in the right direction. The film dispenses with the typical exposition and makes the audience work to understand. In fact the film does the opposite of explain. Instead, it piles on the questions, like when Jack’s mother, crying alone in a forest, asks the universe in despair, “Where are you?”
It was once said that “Philosophy begins in wonder,” and wonder is what Malick trusts the audience to do, something that most directors haven’t dared try since Stanley Kubrick in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick, after all, studied philosophy at Harvard and taught at MIT. As you would expect, Tree of Life is filled with deep thought, especially with the spiritual and religious. But, I think, as the title suggests, the film’s ultimate message surrounds the idea of human life in the face of the unimaginable vastness of time and space. Though the film takes the audience on a cosmic adventure from the Big Bang to the Earth’s inevitable close, it skips eons in between, morphing from the Earth’s primordial surface to the age of the Dinosaurs in a heartbeat. It only slows to zoom in on the O’Brien family, an invisible speck on the timeline of Life. Yet they’re somehow special. Perhaps therein lies Malick’s message, whispered so beautifully by Jack’s mother, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”