The story of The Tree of Life begins suitably with death, because death so often serves as a trigger for asking the “great questions:” what is the purpose of existence? What is the value of life? Why do bad things happen to good people?
As Sean Penn’s character, Jack O’Brien, wrestles with these ever-unresolved questions, he calls to mind memories of his 1950s Texas childhood, where he first learned about the joys and sorrows of life, “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” As the film progresses, one comes to the realization that the answer to Jack’s plight lies in these various episodes of his coming-of-age. Though the questions posed by Jack bear an intellectual character, the transformation he undergoes is instead one of disposition (a move from hubris to humility), and his father (Brad Pitt), known to us only as Mr. O’Brien, plays a pivotal role in facilitating this change. Jack comes to resent the reign of terror (or rather of “terrifying love”) which his father visits upon him and his two brothers, and develops a hateful attitude towards him. He believes his father to be a hypocrite by admonishing his sons against being disrespectful and lacking manners, though committing these transgressions himself. Mr. O’Brien’s failures serve, in Jack’s mind, to delegitimize the value of these life lessons. However, through a quasi-reconciliation with his father later in his childhood, as well as his midlife crisis brought on by the death of his brother, Jack faces the fact that his rebelliousness and unwillingness to recognize his father’s deep concern for him is arrogant, short-sighted, and childish.
One can also detect this transformation – albeit in a more subtle yet powerful way – in Brad Pitt’s character, the resolute and strong-willed Mr. O’Brien. Disillusioned at life by both his failure as an aspiring professional musician and a prolific inventor, he lives filled with frustration and regret. He resolves that his children should not suffer the same fate as he did, and wishes to teach them the “’way of nature”: that might makes right; that those who are “too good” fall behind in the game of life; that the successful CEO’s and power players attain their positions through deception, trickery, tough-mindedness, and, most importantly, the conviction that the world is theirs for the taking. It is this belief that Mr. O’Brien takes to heart: that men who possess enough strength, will, endurance, as well as (at least) a dash of moral grayness can fashion their own world and shape their destiny.
But this fantasy comes crashing down when, despite his greatest efforts, he confronts the loss of his job and the prospect of moving his family away from the home they have always known; Jack and the rest of the family detects this change too, as Mr. O’Brien toes the line of abuse in various interactions not only with his children, but even his wife. This ultimately moves him to confess his helplessness to Jack: having placed his hope in the fortunes of strength and power, O’Brien remains confounded at the fact that, though he has given it his all, he has barely managed to remain in the game of life, much less gain success at it. As a result, he decides to ask Jack for forgiveness. Only through this process of humbling self-recognition, and turning to “the way of grace” (which paradoxically becomes more powerful than the power-obsessed “way of nature”) can Mr. O’Brien finally find peace within himself and find reconciliation with Jack and the rest of his family.
This process – of moving from hubris to humility – illuminates the real narrative significance of the breathtaking cinematography which director Terrence Malick inserts into the middle of this film. As the voices of the characters echo some of the timeless questions about the meaning of existence, one witnesses the formation of the universe, the stars, the planets, the solar system, the emergence and extinction of life – the equal parts in the universe played by creation and destruction. One cannot help but ponder the absolute insignificance of human existence, when compared the sheer size and complexity of the universe we inhabit. This incomprehensible magnitude gives credence to God’s admonition against Job, quoted at film’s outset: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? […] when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:4,7). Job, like Jack and Mr. O’Brien, seeks an answer to the meaning of existence, attempting to discern and dictate what is “fair” – what the rules of cosmic justice should be. But this presumption hints at a type of arrogance, an unwarranted confidence in the ability of such finite and insignificant beings to comprehend the most complex and baffling of mysteries. Even Job, the most righteous of men, must humbly admit that he cannot attain such greatness. Such is the way of grace.
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